Monday, June 21, 2010

Spiritual but not religious? The face of the new paganism

The term 'pagan' historically refers to the polytheistic religious landscape of the Greco-Roman world. The Roman world around the time of the New Testament had become a melting pot of spiritual & mystical beliefs.  Over time, devotion to one particular religious expression was replaced by an amalgam of beliefs, many times without regard to the mutually exclusive claims of those beliefs.

In fact, the term pagan literally means "country dweller".  Whereas Christianity gained a growing following in urban areas, the spread of the Gospel occurred much more slowly in the rural countryside.  Rural people groups of the time were poorly educated and therefore much more likely to hold contradictory beliefs in tension.  It reminds me of a pastor friend who shared a conversation he had with a young woman who described herself as "a Christian and an atheist".  Despite an hour of conversation he was unable to convince her of the logical contradiction of that statement. Such is the logic of paganism.

A recent news article by Fox News highlights that the United State is returning to Greco-Roman paganism at an alarming rate.  Some studies suggest as many as 20% of Americans identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious". A 2009 survey by the research firm LifeWay Christian Resources reveals 72 percent of millennials (18- to 29-year-olds) reporting to be "more spiritual than religious." Shunning denominations and religious systems of thought, these individuals approach spirituality as if it were a buffet where one can fill the plate with a little of everything.

Tossing logic and reason to the side, pop-culture America is becoming increasingly pagan. Yet education alone with not fix the problem.  Certainly I agree that American public schools are failing our children (at one point in our nation's history every junior high student would have taken courses in Logic. Now few university graduates even receive this training).  Yet while lack of education may produce pagans, the presence of education alone never produces Christians.  The root cause of paganism goes far deeper than education.  At its core it is rebellion against the truth (just an ignorant form of that rebellion).

The Fox News article contains this striking story:
Nazli Ekim, who works in public relations in New York City, says calling herself spiritual instead of religious is her way of taking responsibility for herself.
Ekim was born in a Muslim family and raised in Istanbul, Turkey. She prayed to Allah every night, until she was 13 and had to take religion classes in high school.Then one day, she says she had to take charge of her own beliefs.
"I had this revelation that I bow to no one, and I've been spiritually a much happier person," says Ekim, who describers herself now as a Taoist, a religious practice from ancient China that emphasizes the unity of humanity and the universe.
"I make my own mistakes and take responsibility for them. I've lied, cheated, hurt people -- sometimes on purpose. Did I ever think I will burn in hell for all eternity? I didn't. Did I feel bad and made up for my mistakes? I certainly did, but not out of fear of God."
Both the irrational pagan and the intellectualistic atheist share a common value: both refuse to bow to God. One searches for meaning, the other search for truth--both refuse to find it in the only place it can be found. Like the fish who is constantly searching for the Ocean, they never stop to see they have been swimming in it all along.

A window into Gelatt family life

As I was unpacking another box in the office today I came across a notebook that contained the "official minutes" of a Gelatt family meeting.  We occasionally call family meetings to discuss and decide various issues. Normally we don't take notes, but once in a while we get kind of goofy.  Here it is:

Gelatt Family Meeting, Jan 3, 2009
Called to order by Dad at 8:30 PM.
Moderator: Dad

Item of discussion: Beza the dog.

Remi feels Beza is an amazing little dog and is very nice. But, we cannot teach her anything and she keeps destroying our things [Moderator note: Earlier in the evening Beza had destroyed Remi's brand new jacket, causing many tears and outbursts by said child].

Mom concurred that Beza had ruined many jackets, clothes, Tupperware, and other items. She constantly gets into the trash. During those times, she growls and snaps if we try to take food away [Moderator note: the dog, not the mom]. She is afraid someone will get bite.

Caleb noted that none of his items had been ruined, and that the ruined clothing items should not have been left out in the first place [Moderator note: this set off a verbal exchange between Remi and Caleb. Moderator intervened and brought order].

Peter noted that "Beza is a horrible, bad dog who eats everything [Moderator note: Peter was giggling the entire time while stating this and did not appear genuinely upset with the dog]. On a serious note, he mentioned that we need to be more cooperative with the dog and understanding.

Motion by Remi with support by Mom that Beza be taken to an animal sheltter and given up permanently.

In favor: Remi, Mom, Caleb, and Dad.
Opposed: Peter.

Motion carries.

Remi wanted it stated for the record that she fears Beza would be put down if no one claimed her from the shelter.

Peter stated that Remi should have thought of that before voting yes. The accusation of "murderer" may have been made (though this was not officially substantiated).

There was some discussion if we should immediately get another dog. The children, noting the look in mom's eyes, felt the wise course of action would be to wait for the time being.

Meeting ended with much crying and tears, even by the children who voted yes.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Scattering - A Devotional

"Whoever is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matthew 12:30)

How many times have you heard one of the following comments?
"I love Jesus, but I think Christians can take this Jesus stuff too seriously."
"I hate it when Fundamentalists talk about 'making a decision to follow Jesus'. I know God loves me just the way I am."
"Jesus really does save, but I also believe God is loving enough to save people from other religions."
"Evangelism is only about getting a conversion notch on one's belt. Just love other people and stop pushing your faith on them."
In a Seminary counseling class my professor once has the students break into small groups for discussion. The conversation quickly turned to our personal lives and one of my classmates began to talk about his past struggles.  At one point he mentioned how, during a particularly difficult time, a lady from the church came up to him and gave him a big hug.  As she was doing that, she asked him "How is your relationship with Jesus?"

I, of course, assumed this was going to be a positive story.  Yet when he got to this point in the tale he clenched his fists and said "I hate it when other Christians do that.  All I wanted was to be loved. Why did she have to get so 'Jesusy'?"


When mentioning Jesus is cause of offense to another 'Christian', something is seriously wrong.  Jesus has a tricky little habit of being very black and white when it came to being a disciple.  Either we see Christ as our Savior and source of Life, or we stand opposed to Him.  This verse rings the death knell to neutralism towards Jesus.  When it comes to faith, there is no middle ground.  

Those who dislike others being "Jesusy" are not neutral or middle-of-the-road--they are "against Him".  Instead of leading others to Christ, these people actively scatter others away from His message.  That is not the activity of a loyal servant but rather a deceptive enemy of the Gospel.

Stop scattering.  Gather.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Yoke of Love - A Devotional

"Here, take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Matthew 11:29a)

A yoke is an instrument of work. In this verse Jesus is requiring something of all who would be His followers. Martin Luther believed this was a chief reason why people don't run to Christ. The Gospel is costly. It makes demands upon a person's life.

Even non-believers understand this. Sigmund Freud, in his book Civilisation and Its Discontents, argues that Christianity requires too much because it teaches that all conduct should be motivated from love. Biology, says Freud, requires aggression towards our enemies and therefore the command to love represses our natural instincts.  He believed that the command to "love our neighbor as ourselves" was unreasonable, stating "Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love; I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred" (p 56).  In other words, Freud felt the command to love was too demanding.

Jesus is demanding much, to be sure.  It is difficult to love, but consider the pain and difficulty caused by failing to love. War, rape, murder, gossip, slavery, abandonment, betrayal--all these actions stem from hatred or apathy. Lives are destroyed, reputations are ruined, human beings are used and devalued. Jesus is speaking to those individuals who have been beaten down by life and is offering them a new way to go forward.  Instead of continuing the endless battle against others (which ultimately destroys us all), he offers us the way of the Father, who is love. Fredrick Bruner once wrote on this passage, "When Jesus offers a yoke he offers what me might think tired workers need least. They need a mattress or a vacation, not a yoke. But Jesus realizes that the most restful gift he can give the tired is a new way to carry life" (Matthew: A Commentary: Vol 1, p 538).

But Jesus is also saying something else: he is commanding us to learn.  What is noteworthy is how we are to go about learning from him.  The yoke was a work instrument.  It required toil and labor. In other words, we don't not merely sit at Jesus' feet and learn as if we were mere students.  We are disciples--perhaps we could even say apprentices--who are to learn from Jesus as we are following after Him.  The goal in the Christian life is never to simply learn about Jesus (gaining knowledge), but rather to learn from Him (changing our lives to be like Him).

Love cannot be studied.  To understand it, you must practice it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Insanity of Prayerlessness - A Devotional

"[Jesus] then told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not become discouraged" (Luke 18:1 HCSB).

I do not want to even imagine a life without prayer.  If I did, I suppose it would be something like being trapped in a dark cave during an earthquake.  Unable to see which direction to go, everything above you is falling in and everything below you is shifting around. No direction. No security. No safety.

One of the saddest moments I experience is when I am with a believer who admits they don't pray. It is a bit like trying to get to the other side of the river by jumping off the cliff, instead of simply walking across the bridge.  Jesus understood that all of humanity is in desperate need of a right relationship with God--and the safety and security that this right relationship brings.  The Bible pictures God as a "rock in whom we take refuge" (2 Sam 22:3) and a "strong tower" in which we can be safe (Prov 18:10). He is "an ever present help in the time of trouble" (Psalm 46:1) and "a shelter in the time of storm" (Isaiah 25:4).

Yet there are so many within the church that live their daily lives cut off from this power and strength. Though allowed, through the blood of Christ, to "approach the throne of grace with confidence" (Hebrews 4:16), they have rarely entered in. It is nothing short of insanity that drives them to the gloomy basement when they could delight in the joy of His sanctuary.  A.C. Dixon once wrote,
"If a man admits that there is a God, while at the same time he denies that He hears prayer, he has brought his God down to the position of a petty savage chieftain who lives for His own pleasure without regard for the welfare of His subjects. Prayerlessness is, therefore, a species of barbarism" (A.C. Dixon, Present Day Life and Religion, 1905, p 8).
Saints, we need to pray. Anything else is insanity.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What it means to be Reformed

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10 ESV)

One of my dearest friends in the ministry is an Assembly of God pastor. Knowing that I am a Calvinist, he sent me an e-mail asking for help understanding what Reformed people think.  It seems a self-described Calvinist had posted on his Facebook account.  Examples of his comments are below:
[Chuck Colson] is a false prophet, a deceiver, who seeks to beguile the minds of the masses.
{In response to Pastor Bob's exhortation to refrain from judging} You have given the typical non-discerning, "judge not" response that has so characterized the American church for the past two centuries. Discernment is good, but for you Pharisees who think you are holier than God, all you can do is love people. Of course, you hate the elect because you turn the world over to the wolves with your theology.
Sorry, Bob, but I reject your Arminian tinged theology (and even if you are a Calvinist, there are plenty of Calvinists who seemingly can't break from the legacy of Arminian thought in their everyday lives). It is not my desire, nor my duty, to set every man straight who is in error. 
Ah, I just checked your profile and saw that your are with the lunatic Assembly of God "denomination." Explains a lot.
Bob, I will answer you once you tell me how the people of God are benefited by "speaking in tongues" and rolling around the floor barking like a dog. Oh, and I also would like to know why you consider gibberish such as "Ishdabnodawkoshb" is a coherent language. And, let me know the last time the Assemblies have executed a false prophet (every one... See More of your churches has at least a couple).  
You see, Bob, I consider the AoG to be like the Church of Christ, a false church led by fools and wannabe magicians.
My pastor friend emailed asking me if this type of behavior was typical of Reformed thinking.  I replied, "this man certainly isn't Reformed. I see no evidence that the Holy Spirit has reformed anything about him. The stench of sin, hatred, and death is upon him."

Perhaps my statements were harsh. I am still praying through whether or not my response was biblically appropriate (I fear they lack the very grace I found lacking in him).  But I am deeply concerned with any definition of Reformed that does not begin with God's re-formation of our hearts.  The core belief of Calvinism is that God, through Christ, has created a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within His elect. To verbally express the 5 points of Calvinism while simultaneously spewing the venom of hatred only proves that our hearts were formed in the fires of Hell.

O that God would raise up a generation of Calvinists who are as committed to living out the same grace upon which our doctrines our based.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Is your faith in God intelligent?

"The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky above proclaims His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1 ESV).

Josh McDowell's book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, is an impressive pop-level apologetical work. I've long appreciated the work, even though I find many of its underlying assumptions a bit flawed.  Any attempt to express the truth of Christianity deserves praise.

Yet McDowell recently gave an interview where he made some troubling comments. They are troubling not so much for what they claim, but for what McDowell presupposes.  The article states,
In his 50 years of ministry, McDowell has asked several thousand pastors and leaders how they could be certain Jesus Christ said "I am the truth" and not one of many truths or a truth.
"Not one person has ever given me an intelligent, bibilically-based answer," said the author of The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
During the past six years, he asked hundreds of Christians and leaders why they see themselves as Christians. Again, no one gave him an "intelligent" answer.
In the past 17 years, he has asked over 4,000 pastors, leaders, and parents why they believe the Bible is true.
A mere six "came close to giving an intelligent answer", McDowell noted.
There was much in the article that is praiseworthy on McDowell's part.  What is troubling is the presupposition that Christians must acquire a reasonable argument for their faith.  As a proponent of what is known as Evidentialist apologetics, McDowell in one swift stroke has undermined the biblical witness and placed biblical faith on the defensive.  While there certainly is a place for apologetics and defenders of the faith, do we really believe we can give an "intelligent" answer to someone who is determined not to believe?  

Scripture never seeks to defend the notion that God exists.  It simply presupposes it.  The very first words in the Bible say "In the beginning God...". It understands that belief in God is the logically starting point of any conversation.  Nothing can exist, not even meaningful discourse, without a presupposition in God.

Even the ancient philosophers understood this (though in a pagan context). Aristotle was so throughly disgusted by atheists that he forbade his students from having discussions with them, believing that reasoned arguments would just be wasted upon their stubborn foolishness. Cicero, in his Reply to Aurusius, said "Who can be so blind as not to sense the existence of God?"  Elsewhere he said "where can you find a race or nation so bas not to have, in not formal teachings and doctrines, yet at least an innate awareness of the divine.  In other words, the barbarian is the one who denies God, not the one who has faith in Him. Seneca also wrote, "There never was a nation so dissolute and abandoned, so lawless and immoral, as to believe there is no God." Aelianus notes that "None of the barbarous nations ever fell into atheism, or doubted of the gods whether they were or not, or whether they took care of human affairs or not; not the Indians, nor the Gauls, nor the Egyptians."  Plutarch remarks, "If you go over the earth, you find cities without walls, letters, kings, houses, wealth, and money, devoid of theatres and schoos; but a city without temples and man ever saw". In another work (The Nature of the Gods, Book 2) Cicero writes, "The beauty and the order of the heavens proclaim that there exists some supreme and eternal power, which is worthy of the respect and admiration of the human race." This is precisely Paul's point in Romans 1:20. 

The majority of Christians are not scholars (it should therefore not surprise us that they don't give us scholarly answers), at least by McDowell's standards. Yet this beloved brother seems to have forgotten Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge".  Perhaps it is true that few Christians have ever given an "intelligent" answer. Not all are meant to author books and give lectures. But it is also true that the world has never heard an "intelligent" atheist challenge. 

In the end, the council of Cyprian (an Early Church father) still holds today: "This is the epitome of sin, to refuse recognition to the One of whom it is impossible for us humans to be ignorant" (On the Vanity of Idols).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

American, England, Soccer---and one small wager

The following exchange occurred between the American and British Embassies. It was quite good-natured, and gives us hope that at least some in politics have a right view of the world!

From: Philip Breeden, US Embassy London
To: Martin Longden, British Embassy Washington DC
Subject: World Cup Bet
Mr. Longden,
It has not escaped our attention that a certain sporting event is fast approaching, and that our respective nations will soon be meeting on the fields of South Africa. My Ambassador has asked me to see if your Ambassador might be interested in a small wager? We will understand if you decline, given the outcome of the last such encounter.
Sincerely, Philip Breeden, U.S. Embassy, London
From: Martin Longden, British Embassy Washington DC
To: Philip Breeden, US Embassy London
Subject: Re: World Cup Bet
Mr. Breeden,
Even for such an exceptionally optimistic nation as the United States, I am struck by the confidence with which your Ambassador proposes this wager. It is testament, I assume, to the generosity of your great nation – since the British Ambassador does not anticipate paying out.
Your email does not specify the exact terms of the wager. May I suggest that, in the event of an England victory, the US Ambassador agrees to entertain the British Ambassador at a steak-house of his choosing in downtown DC? And in the event that the United States is able to engineer a fortuitous win over England, then my man will entertain yours at a London pub of his choosing. Loser pays.
Your reference to a previous sporting encounter between our two countries puzzles me. Since the history of English football is long and extensive, in contradistinction to US soccer, I regret that I cannot immediately recall the encounter to which you refer. No doubt it is remembered fondly on these shores; we have quite forgotten it, however.
Are you sure you want to do this?
Yours sincerely,
Martin Longden
British Embassy Washington DC
From: Philip Breeden, US Embassy London
To: Martin Longden, British Embassy Washington DC
Subject: Re: World Cup Bet
Mr. Longden ,
It is with great pleasure, and no small measure of anticipation, that the U.S. Ambassador accepts the terms of the wager. I am surprised, given the well known love of the British for history, that you have forgotten what happened the last time the “special relationship” was tested on the pitch. Of course, given the result, you are to be forgiven for having misplaced that particular episode in your memory banks. I refer of course to the victory of the U.S. over England in the 1950 World Cup.
It is true that our soccer (a fine English word we have kindly preserved for you) history is not as long and illustrious as yours. However, as your generals noted during WWII, we have a unique capability for quickly identifying and advancing talent.
Game on!
Sincerely, Philip Breeden
From: Martin Longden, British Embassy Washington DC
To: Philip Breeden, US Embassy London
Subject: Re: World Cup Bet
Mr. Breeden,
Very well; it’s a bet!
Incidentally, you should know that the Ambassador takes his steak like American soccer victories – somewhat rare.
Martin Longden


"Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes" (Ephesians 6:11 NIV).

Some people are indecisive by nature. We all recognize these people immediately, since they are the ones in the group who are hemming and hawing when a decision needs to be made.  In fact, the phrase "hem and haw" is a good description. In older English "to hem" was a sound (like a half cough) one made to attract attention, give warning, or express hesitation.  It comes through in modern English when we say "ahem" (usually through a fake cough). "Haw", on the other hand, was the 16th century version of "um" or "uh".  It was a little sound one made when unconsciously expressing hesitation. A pattern of indecision reveals a person who lacks confidence.

But there is another type of indecisive person that many wouldn't immediately recognize.  This is the individual who is exceptionally brilliant.  Ever studying and researching various scholarly opinions, this person has made a life out of analyzing other points of view.  The quest is not so much for truth as it is for views about truth.

Imagine if someone took such an approach to the Word of God? Whether is be a seminary professor, a church pastor, or an armchair theologian, it is one who is fascinated by theories and opinions.  Never coming to a conclusion, this is a person who rises higher in human knowledge but remains spiritually stagnant.  John Owen, the great Puritan scholar, goes even further when he says ""Intellects which are willing to drift backwards and forwards on the ebb and flow of the tides of changing theories will, at the end, be driven by the winds of uncertainty into the quicksands of atheism." This doesn't mean that one must be dogmatic about every little theological issue. But it does mean that we must firmly stand on the central truths of the Christian faith.  The ultimate destination of indecision concerning the things of God is full-fledged atheism.

The German mathematician Heinz Hopf once wrote, "Indecision is debilitating; it feeds upon itself; it is, one might almost say, habit-forming. Not only that, but it is contagious; it transmits itself to others."  No wonder the Apostle Paul urged the Ephesian believers to take a stand. We live in a world where there is a battle for our hearts and minds.  As believers, both belong to God.  Take a stand.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Martin Lloyd-Jones on Interpreting Scripture

The written sermons of Dr. Jones have continually blessed me over the last several years, and I have been particularly delighted with his sermon series on 1 John. They have been an indispensable aid as I preach my way through this important biblical text.  On his exposition on 1 John 4:12, in a momentary distraction from the text, he gives us a window into the way he approached God's Word:
I feel that oftentimes we fail to expound correctly and we misinterpret Scripture because we do not talk to it and ask it questions. It is a very good and rewarding thing to do with Scripture. Let me put it as simply as this: You get a verse like this, and you say to it, 'Well, why do you say that? Why do you say it in this way, and why do you say it just here?' In other words, no statement in Scripture is made in a haphazard manner, and we must never allow ourselves just to pass over a statement which seems to us to be suddenly interpolated without any connection or sense or meaning. That is never true in Scripture; if we can but arrive at its meaning, there is always some reason for what is being said, there is some link, there was some process in the mind of the writer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, that led him at that particular point to say that particular thing. So I am suggesting that the way to arrive at that is to ask these questions--to put up possibilities and to consider them and to reject them one by one until you are left with an explanation which seems to you to be satisfactory, or the most satisfactory in the given situation.

Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John (Crossway, 2002 reprint), p 451-452.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Divisions - A devotional for Wednesday, June 2, 2010


"How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity" (Psalm 133:1).

On Monday I had the privilege to be involved in our town's Memorial Day ceremony. After I offered an opening prayer I took my seat on the stage as another minister gave a short message. Clearly this man and I were very different theologically.  I'm sure we would probably disagree on a number of things: church polity, ends times, the doctrines of Grace, and perhaps many more.  Even so, I sat in my chair silently praising God as this brother opened the word and told this small crowd about the reality of sin, the atonement provided by Jesus Christ, and the need to put our faith in Him. His words were bold and wise...and most importantly clear about the Gospel.

Theology is important.  Just because a doctrine is one of the "non-essentials" doesn't mean its unimportant.  I want churches everywhere to come to decisions on things such as baptism, spiritual gifts, women in ministry, and end times scenarios.  But I also want us to be willing to call brothers brothers and sisters sisters.  If someone holds to Christ and His true Gospel he is my brother, despite his theological difference.  Don't be foolish and run to the other extreme and declare "doctrine divides". That is the war cry of heretics and demons.  But, do very much cry "Christ unites"!

Jeremiah Burroughs once wrote
"The Mohammedans (who worship a cursed impostor), the pagans (who worship the sun, moon, and stars), and the Egyptians (who worship onions, leeks, cats, and dogs) never had such divisions among them as the worshippers of Jesus Christ have had, and have at this today among themselves."
There is a division that is caused when we look to Christ, and a division that is caused when we look away.  May we be guilty of the former, but never the latter.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Half of Christ - A Devotional for Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Half of Christ

"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." (Acts 16:31).

The world has never seen a more influential figure than Jesus Christ. He stands above human history and his message, now 2,000 years old, is as potent and life-changing now as it was then.

Yet no figure in history has been more misunderstood and misconstrued. Cults, false religions, and even atheists all make claim to Christ--though in the process they twist his message and identity. Buddhists see Christ as a spiritual sage. Muslims revere him as an honored prophet.  Atheists cling to his message of love. Yet what is most disturbing is when professing Christians declare allegiance to Christ all the while ignoring (or even denying) most of what He said.  They love being warmed by the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), but refuse the warning of coming judgement (Matthew 24-25). They adore the Christ of love, but utterly despise the Christ of wrath. Still others, like modern day Jonahs, enjoy using Christ's words to condemn sinners but ignore His commands to love and befriend them. Evangelical churches are filled with people believing in half a Christ, being taught by men who preach half a Christ.

John Calvin once wrote:
"If we could be content with half a Christ our work would more easily go on. We could soon bring about what we would have and not meet with so much opposition. But nothing but a whole Christ will do!"
Loving half my kids still makes me a bad father and loving half a Savior still makes me a condemned sinner. Embrace Christ in all that He has revealed himself to be!