Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Lot In My Lap

Today was the big day: the day the people of Riverview voted whether to extend a call to me to be the next pastor of Riverview or to look elsewhere.  After a spirited business meeting, the vote was taken and the measure passed by a significant margin.  The church's constitution states that a pastor must receive 75% of a congregational vote in order for a call to be extended, and the results came in well over that mark.

The agenda for the meeting allowed for questions and comments from the congregation as to the motion to be voted upon with me being present in the room, and then a second period of questions and comments from the congregation without me being present.  After that, the congregation would vote.

There were several people who spoke, and I was very encouraged by each and every one of them.  Although some of the comments expressed concerns about me becoming the senior pastor, I believe they came from a thoughtful and prayerful attitude, and were generated with my best interests at heart.  To that extent, I am grateful that the people of Riverview thought clearly and considered me in their thinking.  Truly, I am generally grateful for all who expressed concern.

When I recruit people for volunteer ministry positions at Riverview, I generally send them a letter telling them about the need in the church, and how we've arrived upon them as a potential candidate to fill the volunteer position.  I always end the letter by stating that regardless of their decision to volunteer in this capacity or not, we will rejoice what what they decide to do or not do.  Because if a person has come upon a decision prayerfully and with introspection, the decision they come to has been arrived upon through God's guidance.  And any time people are seeking God in their decision making, it's a winning situation.

To this extent, I was fine with whatever decision the congregation made.  Certainly being the senior pastor of Riverview is something that I am desiring to do, and something I think that I am able to do.  But if the people came to the decision that I am not the best fit for Riverview at this time through a well-thought, prayerful process, then I would rejoice in that decision.  That being said, I am glad that the vote came out the way it did!

I was also humbled by all of the people who spoke up in support for me in the position.  By God's grace, I will be able to live up to everything you said about me.  Please pray for me to that end.  Thank you.

Two comments in particular stood out to me, and interestingly enough, neither of these comments were particularly positive or negative toward extending a call to me.  One comment I thought was very wise, but perhaps not very Baptistic in the sense that Baptists are known for their congregational government - that is, the congregation is king - they have the final vote.  This commenter said that she had decided to trust the church's leadership.  The Deacons and the Church Council (in addition to the recommendation of the regional minister) had unanimously recommended me as a candidate for the position.  She was choosing to trust that the leadership came to their recommendation thoughtfully and prayerfully, and she was choosing to follow their recommendation.  While I affirm congregational church governance, I think there is wisdom to this thinking.  As Baptists, we elect and approve leaders whom we believe are gifted in such a way as to occupy leadership positions.  It is reasonable (and biblical) to assume that these folks are thinking well and biblically when it comes to decisions and recommendations like these.  I thank God for people who are humbly willing and able to submit to their leaders.

The second comment that I thought was very helpful at the meeting had to do with the encouragement of one member to the congregation to submit themselves to God's decision, whatever that might be.  The encouragement was for the congregation to realize that God is sovereign, and that the outcome of the vote would be an indication of his will, and that we should accept it as his will and submit to it.  This is wisdom, and I was thankful for the admonition to us all to submit ourselves to God's authority.

At the end of the day (which it is, 11:30 PM as I write this) God is sovereign, and he seems to have directed the people of Riverview in a certain way.  If God allows, I will bear this responsibility and have the distinct honor and privilege of leading the people of Riverview as their pastor.  May he strengthen me to that end.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

On the Eve of the Vote

Today marks the day before the day of the vote that the people of Riverview will cast to determine whether or not I will be the next senior pastor.  It's been an incredibly long month of waiting, between the time when the announcement was made to the congregation that I would be the first candidate they would consider, until now.  There has been a lot to consider, to ponder, and to think about.  In a very real way, I'll be glad when the vote is over - regardless of the outcome.

One impression I have had over the past month is that I am unworthy of the ministry.  I am such a sinful man, and my own growth in holiness seems so painfully slow at times.  Who am I that I should be called to the ministry?  The answer is, I'm a nobody, and I don't deserve anything, let alone the ministry.  There's nothing about me that's any good or that is inherently useful for being in the ministry.  But I guess that's the point, and it's what I have to keep telling myself.  It's only by God's grace that any of us do anything.  And so I attribute anything about myself that might be useful for gospel ministry to God and his wisdom and grace.

Also over the past month, there have been two verses in particular that I have been meditating on: "The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps." (Proverbs 16.9) and "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD." (Proverbs 16.33)  In our representative republic we feel like we have so much control over the process of selecting our leaders.  We think we make the decisions, and people do what we say.  But that's not true - God is the one who makes the decisions and determines rulers and kings and leaders.  The same is true of our Baptist polity - we believe the congregation is king - they make the rules, select the leaders, etc.  But the same is true of congregational government: God has the final say.

Whatever happens tomorrow, the decision will be the Lord's, whether the vote comes out positively or negatively.  And since he loves me and is working all things together for my good, I can rejoice in whatever happens.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Sovereignty of God In Salvation

God chose, before the foundation of the world, those who would be delivered from slavery to sin and those who would be condemned (Romans 8.28-30, 9.11-18).  This election was not based on any merits of the elect, but on grace alone (Ephesians 1.4-6).  Although all people deserve God's just punishment (Romans 3.23), God chose some to whom he would give the grace of repentance and saving faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sin before the world began.  This act of election is an unconditional act of grace (Ephesians 2.8-9).

All people in the world are privileged to enjoy God's grace given to human beings.  This grace is common, and is sufficient for daily life.  Considering their sinful and fallen nature, all good things that human beings enjoy are works of God's common grace (Psalm 145.9).  Saving grace, however, is reserved for those whom God had predestined to believe the gospel (Ephesians 2.5, 8-10).  This grace is irresistible to those whom God has predestined, and is sufficient for the application of Christ's redeeming work performed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1.20).

Repentance and Faith
Repentance and faith are gifts of God's grace given to believers and are necessary for salvation.  Repentance is the act whereby a human being forsakes his or her desire for sinful tendencies as empowered by God (Acts 3.19, 26.20, 1 Corinthians 16.22).  Those things loved in the sinful nature are forsaken for those things of a regenerated nature (1 Corinthians 5.9, 1 Thessalonians 2.4).  Faith is God-given grace to believe the message of the gospel for the full forgiveness of sins.  Through faith, God empowers individuals to believe that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient for justification and salvation, and that Christ's death and resurrection has secured for the believer all promises that are due to him or her through the act of being reconciled to God (Ephesians 2.8-9).

Justification refers to the standing sinners have before God after having had their sin paid for through the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, having been declared not guilty on account of grace through faith in Christ (Romans 3.20, 28).  God justifies the ungodly by faith and not by works (Romans 4.5, Galatians 3.24).  God reckons as righteous and acceptable in his sight those whom he has granted the grace of faith, by which sinners are united to Christ, whose perfect righteousness is alone satisfactory for full justification (Romans 3.25, 1 John 2.2).  This justification is a working of God alone, and is not merited by any works or deeds done by the justified (Ephesians 2.8-9).

Regeneration and Sanctification
At the moment of salvation, the sinner is given a new heart with new desires for the things of God.  This too is an act of God, and is not motivated or inspired by human desires or works (Titus 3.5).  This does not mean, however, that the sinner becomes to ally and perfectly righteous in his or her earthly life (Romans 7.15-17).  Rather, God works in the heart and mind of the converted through his Spirit to bring about an ever-increasing level of righteousness in daily life (Romans 8.13).  That is, the believer's slavery to sin is broken and his or her sinful tendencies and desires are progressively weakened through the power of the Spirit (Romans 6.20-22).  This reality calls the believer to become an active participant in God's battle against sin in his or her life, and to rest assured in the eventual victory over it.  While regeneration is an immediate reality in the believer's life, the process of sanctification is life-long and will continue unto death. But God will continually provide the believer with grace upon grace so that the believer can and will persevere through this battle with sin.  In this sense, the process of sanctification is divine and human endeavor; the individual is empowered by God to fight sin and pursue holiness.

When a believer dies, he or she is made perfect and holy; the process of sanctification having been completed.  The believer is taken to heaven to be with Christ and bask in his glory (Philippians 3.20-21).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Remember This:

"The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." (Proverbs 16.33) And, "Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." (Proverbs 19.21)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Sovereignty of God Over the Nature and Purpose of Humanity and Over Sin

The Image of God
God created human beings in his own image (Genesis 1.27).  That is, God created human beings to love and enjoy him in perfect fellowship, without sin, being in some sense like God and representing God (Genesis 1.31).  Male and female were created in the image of God, and together fully reflect the image of God (Genesis 2.8, Ephesians 5.22-33).  It is this fact - that they have been created in the image of God - that makes human beings unique in all of God's creation, and makes their value as created beings distinct from other elements of creation.

The Purpose of Humanity
Since God lives and exists in perfect relationship with himself, needing no other relationship than that which is perfected int he godhead, he had no need to create human beings.  He therefore created human beings for the purpose of glorifying himself (Revelation 7.9-10).  This glory is made evident through the ways God relates to his created beings and the ways in which they praise him for his glorious deeds (Psalm 78.4).  Through his interactions with human beings, God shows himself to be kind, merciful, forgiving, just, loving, etc. (Exodus 34.5-7, Psalm 18.25, 107.1, 145.9), bringing glory to himself through the display of these attributes.  Even through God's just judgment of sin (and sinners), God is shown to be great in that he rightly deals with evil (Psalm 7.6 89, 27-29, Hebrews 10.30).

The Nature of Sin
Sin is any and every thing that is contrary to the nature and will of God.  It is the inclination of human beings to act and think independently of God's will and revelation (Genesis 3.6, Romans 3.23).  Sin separates the offender from the Holy God (Isaiah 59.2).  Through the Fall, the entire human race was plunged into sin and is hopelessly lost in it (Romans 5.12, 1 Corinthians 15.22, Romans 6.23).

God does not tempt or force human beings to sin (James 1.13).  Rather, he allows human beings to follow the desires of their sinful, fallen hearts.  God is sovereign over humankind's sinful activities, however, in that he chooses to allow, or not allow, sinful activities to take place (John 19.10-11, Acts 2.22-23, 4.27-28).  In this sense, while God remains sovereign over sin, he cannot be accused of having sinned or being evil himself, and human beings bear the full responsibility for their sin.

The Fallen Nature and Effects of Sin
Although God created human beings as morally upright (Ecclesiastes 5.29), they were led away from the truth of God's will and revelation by Satan (Genesis 3.1).  Having been given freedom by God, in allowing themselves to be deceived, they chose to act against God's word and therefore declared their independence from him.  In this sense, human kind fell from their state of sinlessness and fellowship with God (2 Corinthians 11.3).  All human beings since Adam and Eve, therefore, in some mysterious way, have inherited a sinful nature and similarly suffer the consequences of such a nature, namely separation from God int he spiritual sense (Romans 5.8, Hebrews 11.6, Isaiah 64.6).  All people have been corrupted by this nature and are totally depraved, enslaved to sin, and unable to overcome its effects and control by their own power (Isaiah 64.6, Ephesians 2.8-9).  The physical result of this fallen nature is that of death, sickness, and decay (Genesis 3.14-19).  All suffering, therefore, is a result of the fallen nature of human beings (Genesis 3.16-19, Romans 5.12)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Empty Hosannas

Kevin DeYoung writes this short but interesting bit regarding what we commonly say of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on what we regard as Palm Sunday.  DeYoung says that many preachers imply that the same crowd that shouted "Hosanna!" on Palm Sunday would go on to shout "Crucify him!" only five days later, illustrating mankind's tendency to fall away.

But, DeYoung says, a more careful look at scripture shows us that the people who shouted "Hosanna!" were a uniquely different set than those who shouted "Crucify him!" later in the week.  The gospel of Luke says that the people shouting and singing as he rode in on the donkey were "the whole multitude of his disciples."  Mark 15 says that many of his disciples were looking on as this was happening, indicating that they were a large portion of the proceedings, or at least instigators of the celebration.  John 12 says that the people waving palm branches and celebrating his arrival were those who had seen Jesus do miraculous signs and wonder, such as raising Lazarus from the dead.  Surely these people were regular followers of Jesus.

In contrast, those who shouted for Jesus' death were not his followers, but the Jews of Jerusalem, including the Pharisees and others.  These were not Jesus' regular followers or disciples.

DeYoung quotes commentator R.T. France: "There is no warrant here for the preacher's favorite comment on the fickleness of a crowd which could shout 'Hosanna' one day and "crucify him' a few days later.  They are not the same crowd.  The Galilean pilgrims shouted 'Hosanna' as they approached the city, the Jerusalem crowd shouted, 'Crucify him.'"  

OK, the point is made: those who shouted "Hosanna!" were not the same as those who shouted "Crucify!" and so it is probably unwise to use this as an example of how easily people fall away.  But here's my question: is it really better to have been one of the ones who shouted "Hosanna" than it was to be one of those who shouted "Crucify!"?  Not much, I don't think.  Allow me to explain.

It's clear that those who shouted "Hosanna" did not have a grasp of who Jesus really was in truth.  Rather than the Messiah who would take away the sins of the world, they believed him to be a conquering Messiah who would restore the glory of Israel, setting them up as rulers on earth.  They didn't believe Jesus' kingdom to be a spiritual one built in the hearts of men, but a physical one built through rulers and powers.  This is made even more evident if, as DeYoung asserts (and I think he's correct), those who welcomed him into the city were made up of his disciples.  In fact, his disciples were the ones who were potentially most confused on this issue!

Why were the people shouting "Hosanna" when Jesus entered the city?  Many, if not most, had an inaccurate idea of who Jesus was and what he had come to do.  Did they love Jesus?  Yes, but mostly for what he could do for them, namely restoring the kingdom to Israel and reestablishing their rule of power in the world.  And because the thought of getting the goods through Jesus excited them so much, they responded in praise for their "king."

Do we not see this same level of commitment to Jesus in our day and age?  People who will ascribe their allegiance to Jesus not because they love him or have been changed by him, but because they believe that such an allegiance will be advantageous for their own personal agenda.  In other words, people love Jesus because of what he can do for them - just like those who shouted "Hosanna" as Jesus entered Jerusalem.

So it's true that those who shouted "Hosanna" on Palm Sunday were not the same who shouted "Crucify!" on Good Friday, but I'm not sure this is much better!  May my own "Hosannas!" be uttered with a true heart of love for who Jesus really is, and not just because of what he can do for me.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Influences that Influence our Influences

In yesterday's post I began to talk about the notion that religious instruction is akin to brainwashing.  I began by pointing out that we all see the world based on what we've been told and taught, and by what we have observed.  I then linked to an article which is provocatively titled, "I Want My Kids Brainwashed."  The author recounts accusations she has had from unbelievers that she is brainwashing her children by putting them through religious instruction.  But, as she concludes, it is a good thing that her children a "brainwashed" (a better term would perhaps be "indoctrinated") with the Christian faith, considering all of the other philosophies out there by which to be brainwashed.

This is an important point when it comes to how we see the world and evaluate truth claims: each of us starts with a context - a set of lenses, if you will - and through these lenses we interpret the reality around us.  There is no one on the earth who does not have his or her own set of lenses.  As I said yesterday, we are all "brainwashed" with some sort of framework through which we see the world.

This reality tends to render the accusation that Christians brainwash people as null and void, because even leveling the accusation "Christianity is brainwashing" is, in itself, the result of some sort of contextual brainwashing - particularly the secular kind that believes religion to be brainwashing.  In other words, one cannot make the claim "You have been brainwashed" without having been brainwashed himself or herself.  This is what I was trying to explain in yesterday's post: we cannot examine the process of having been influenced, without being influenced.  

So then, if we are all "brainwashed" to see the world and evaluate truth claims in a certain way, then how can we ever know the truth?  I would argue that such a standard exists in the word of God.

"But," you say, "you've admitted that your analysis of truth claims is inherently biased based on the ways you've been influenced as a child and adult!  How can you be objective when evaluating the truth claims of the Bible?"

I can't.  The best I can do is to know my own biases and presuppositions as well as I can, and to eliminate them as much as possible when I analyze evidence and make conclusions.  I will always have my specific set of lenses that I will look through when I see and observe the world, truth claims, etc.  But the more I know I have those lenses on, the better I can realize when they might be leading me to believe something "just because that's what I've always believed."

Also, through this imperfect process we look for a source of truth upon which to build our lives that is transcendent, trans-cultural, and timeless.  I would argue that the Bible is that source of truth, and blows all other philosophies or worldviews out of the water.  Even our biased interpretations of the Bible are better versions of "brainwashing" than the world has to offer, such as those mentioned in the article linked to above.

In conclusion, I would agree with the article to which I've linked that brainwashing is indeed a good thing.  In fact, you can't even be alive without having been brainwashed to some extent.  The question is not, "Should we brainwash our children?" but rather, "With what philosophy should we brainwash our children?"  There's no escaping it.

That being said, I would obviously reject the notion that we should not engage our brains and critical thinking skills when evaluating truth claims.  We should not believe things just because we've been told them over and over, or just because that's what we've always done or believed.  That would be brainwashing, and that's not profitable for anyone.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Differentiation of Self

It's somewhat common to hear those critical of organized religion level the accusation of brainwashing toward those who practice a faith - particularly Christianity - and particularly when it comes to educating children in the basic tenets of the faith.  In other words, there are some who feel that teaching and propagating the Christian faith is akin to brainwashing - people only believing what they believe because they've been told to believe it often enough that it just becomes a part of their reality, disassociated from any critical or reasonable thought.

One of the main ideas imparted to me during my seminary education was that of differentiation of self: the idea that in order to better understand reality and other people, one must be able to step outside of one's self and see how one has been formed and influenced by culture, family, relationships, religion, etc. Why is this important?  Because there are many things that you and I believe to be right and true, not necessarily because those things are right and true, but simply because that's what we've been taught or have observed our entire lives, and we've never questioned those beliefs.  In other words, we've been brainwashed in some areas of our lives and understanding, albeit unintentionally and without any kind of malicious intent.  It's just a natural product of being linear, cultural beings.  We repeatedly observe the world in a particular way, and we make conclusions about reality based on those observations, and moreover, we assume that our observations and subsequent conclusions are normative, or that they are prescriptive for all people in the world.  In a very real sense, we are all brainwashed.  And the teaching of self-differentiation states that the more we can identify this unintentional brainwashing, the more sensitivity and tolerance we will have toward those who have observed the world in different ways (because of cultural influences) and have come to different conclusions about reality (worldview).

This concept was the foundation of spiritual formation philosophy at Bethel Seminary.  The more we know ourselves in truth and why we think/believe the ways we do, the more we can grow in our knowledge of truth, understand why others envision God in the ways they do, and engage in dialogue with them through which we can all grow spiritually.  I believe there are several good elements of this philosophy, but there are also at least two very significant problems.

The obvious problem with this practice is the propensity for truth claims to be seen as a simple byproduct of cultural persuasion: in other words, you only believe Idea X to be true because it is a product of your culturally/religiously influenced observation of the world.  In this sense, no one can be absolutely sure of any truth claim, because our understanding of truth is suspect due to our heavily influenced way of seeing the world.  Nor can we condemn any ideas as being absolutely  false, since our reasons for doing so can always be called into question, due to our unseen, yet formative, persuasions.  This is one of the basic tenets of postmodernism.

A secondary problem with this practice is that it seems to me to be self-refuting.  Differentiation of self intends for us to do our thinking about life, relationships, truth, and the world with as good a grasp as possible on the propensity for our influences to color our thinking and interpretation of truth claims.  But the problem I see is that the process of self-differentiation is, itself, subject to those same influences.  In other words, if my influences color the way I see and believe truth, then those same influences change my ability to discern those influences.  Yes, I realize it's a bit of a mind bender, and it's also something of an infinite regression.  Put simply, it's akin to the reality that the claim "There is no absolute truth," is a statement of absolute truth.  The two cannot both be right.  In the same way, we can't discern our influences without have that process be influenced by external factors.

So then, we can conclude that everyone examines truth within a social, cultural, societal, religious, ethnic, etc. context, and these factors shape the way we think about truth claims and determine what is true.  In a sense, these influences "brainwash" us into seeing the world in a particular way.  But is that a good thing or a bad thing?  And what about the claim of critics of Christianity that Christians are brainwashed, and that they brainwash their children?  Are they right?

I'll try to tackle these questions in a subsequent post.  I've been thinking about these issues because of some stuff that has come up in my personal life recently, and also because of this article that was just published today on the Gospel Coalition website.  It makes some great points on some of what I've said here, but I want to comment more on it at a later time.

Bad Church Sign: If You Like to Gamble...

"Bet on the man riding on the donkey."  (This followed the church's Palm Sunday worship times.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Because They're Pink and Gooey

Bad church sign of the week, in anticipation of Easter: "Jesus loves his 'peeps.'"