Monday, August 29, 2011

Should we close our eyes during prayer?

Question: My husband never closes his eyes when he prays at home. I don't think this is biblical. Pastor, what do you think?

Great question. I think we can all agree that Jesus would be an appropriate model to follow. The Gospels show us that Jesus prayed often to the Father, and even describe for us his physical posture.  Sometimes he would kneel (Luke 22:41-43) or at times even lay completely prostrate (Matthew 26:39). But at other times Jesus would turn his face towards heaven (John 17:1).  By looking towards heaven the implication is that he did not close his eyes (whether he closed his eyes when he was kneeling or laying prostrate in prayer we have no idea. Scripture never records anyone closing their eyes during prayer).

Psalm 123:1 says "To You I lift up my eyes, O You who are enthroned in the heavens". By turning his eyes upward Jesus was indicating the Father's majesty and authority. John Calvin said that "by looking towards heaven, we are reminded that the majesty of God is far exalted above all creatures. By contrast, when Jesus lay prostrate in prayer he was indicating his submission to God, and declaring how much he needed God's protection and strength.

The ultimate issue isn't one's physical posture. Rather, it is the attitude of the heart.  I cannot read your husbands heart (or yours). If you both are striving to show reverence to the Lord and submit your lives to His will, then don't worry so much about whether or not he closes his eyes. If his heart is flippant, then no posture will fix this anyway. 

You are both communicating to Abba, Father, the Creator of the Universe. Let your mind and heart be overjoyed by the awe of that great privilege. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Practical Reason for Honoring the Traditional Family

This is old news, but I finally got a chance to listen to Congressman Liet. Col Allen West's speech before CPAC. I have been impressed with him for some time, but I didn't realize that he was such a powerful speaker.  The message was about 40 minutes in length, and covered a wide-range of topics. The speech centered on "three pillars" needed to sustain our country. What impressed me the most was his 3rd pillar: traditional American values. As he launched into his remarks, West noted "I realize this is a controversial topic at CPAC." This was a reference, perhaps, to the openly gay and lesbian group that was invited to be part of CPAC's leadership. Knowing they were present, he nevertheless reaffirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman (then again, after leading troops into battle I suppose it is rather unlikely he would have been intimated by the LGBT community).

He then went on to tie the concept of the traditional American family back to the issue of big-government.  He said:
"If you break down the American family that leads to government dependency, which leads to the growth of government, which leads and results in greater government spending. The strength of America is in the strength of the bonds of its American families. When American expanded westward it was with men and women with their families in wagons going across the Mississippi river and spread throughout this great nation. Do not ever forget the bond of this great nation. If we are to have a new dawn in America, we must reclaim our traditional Judeo-Christian heritage."
As Christians we honor the family because it is God's design and command. There are consequences for not following God's laws, and West is pointing out one of those negative consequences. He did go on to offer more than simply pragmatic reasons. The best line of the speech was that "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people"--in other words our country only works correctly when we acknowledge a basic Christian outlook.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why is Calvinism often so joyless?

Have you ever met a joyless Calvinist? How about a rigid one or a mean one? Have you encountered someone who is ready to go to war over the Doctrines of Grace while never seeming to exhibit the very grace he so vigorously defends?

Arminians would say the problem is in the doctrine of Calvinism itself, and to be sure many Calvinists give credence to such perceptions. John Newton once wrote:
I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. . . . a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.         -- “On Controversy,” in The Works of John Newton
The problem isn't Calvinism, because mean-spirited rigidity finds a home in every denomination and theological stance. The more one knows theology (any theology), the greater the temptation of becoming prideful. Paul warns us that "knowledge puffs up" (1 Cor 8:1). There is nothing wrong with knowledge in and of itself. In fact, the Holy Spirit even gives some the gift of knowledge. Jesus came to give the "knowledge of salvation to his people" (Luke 1:77) and condemns those who "take away the key to knowledge" (Luke 11:52). But knowledge in the unconverted or spiritually-weak heart can only produce arrogance. 

Simply put, the "angry Calvinist" isn't a believer, or at the very least he is a rather pathetic one. He may be a champion of orthodoxy, but something hauntingly Pharisaical hides beneath his theological veneer. Jared Wilson offers this wonderful illustration:
A joyless Calvinist knows the mechanics of salvation (probably). But he is like a guy who knows the ins and outs of a car engine and how the car runs. He can take it apart and put it back together. He knows what each part does and how it does it. A graceless Calvinist is like a guy who knows how a car works but has never driven through the countryside in the warm spring air with the top down and the wind blowing through his hair.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Danger of the Pastor becoming a Professional Critic

Pastor Byron Yawn, a self-described “recovering fundie,” explains 10 effects of the “angry prophet” type who defines himself by what he’s against:
  1. You’ll forget to talk about what’s good . . . especially about Jesus.
  2. You’ll begin to take yourself too seriously.
  3. You’ll begin to preach the same sermon from every passage.
  4. You’ll foster mean people.
  5. You’ll eventually assemble an audience of self-congratulatory clones.
  6. You’ll take all correction personally and as an unpardonable offense against “God’s man.”
  7. You’ll make a terrible shepherd.
  8. You’ll become the type of person you warn others about.
  9. You’ll thrive on controversy.
  10. People will stop listening.

Monday, August 22, 2011

An Open Letter to Phil Johnson and Team Pyro

An Open Letter to Phil Johnson and 'Team Pyro'
Dear Phil, Please stop writing put an end to the 'open letters'. Sincerely, Josh Gelatt

Update 9/7/11: Per the comments left below by Phil, I seem to have caused offense by addressing the letter to him since he does not personally write these open letters (though he does approve of them, at least generally). But Phil is the originator of the blog and is widely recognized as its leader. Therefore I still feel acknowledging his leadership role and addressing the letter to him (as well as the other team members) was the appropriate choice. However, I do wish to be at peace with my dear brothers in Christ, so I've adjusted my wording.

Driscoll says "I See Things"

I've always liked Driscoll. Sure, he has been personally criticized by A-list men such as John MacArthur, but he has equally been embraced (with reservation) by other A-list men like John Piper and C.J. Mahanney.  To be honest, Driscoll reminds me a little of the reformer Martin Luther (not the Luther of contemporary glamorization, but the Luther of historical record who was prone to drunkenness, charismatic excesses, and uneven approaches in the interpretation of scripture). 

Martin Luther was used by God in a mighty way, but there is a reason most Reformed believers today rely almost exclusively on John Calvin; simply put: although we love Luther, he was a bit of a nutter. He believed demons hid inside the rafters of his house for the sole purpose of keeping him from getting a good nights sleep. Luther cursed openly and often, regularly using vulgar language in both his sermons and writings. Don't even get me started on his statements regarding the Jews. All in all, he was a rebellious but rather jovial theologian. Few men could needlessly offend worse than Luther, yet few men could boldly proclaim God's truth as well as this German Reformer.

So now we have Driscoll. I'm not sure the Seattle pastor will ever achieve the fame and influence of a Luther (nor am I sure that is even his goal), but regardless of where you stand on Driscoll you have to admit he certainly has great influence among the young reformed crowd. Like his German mentor, he can use crude language and uneven interpretation. For example, his teaching series on Song of Solomon was perhaps one of the most offensive messages I've ever heard. Yet while Driscoll has similarities to Luther, he lacks the Reformers theological depth and exceeds his cultural crudeness.

This is what makes Driscoll such a difficulty. His doctrine of salvation is superb, and he preaches this regularly and boldly. One has to love his passion for God's truth, but biblical maturity would seem to require a distancing from some of his methods and language. 

For this reason I have had to practice defacto separation from Driscoll. I don't believe things have risen to the point (as of yet) where full biblical separation is required, but on a practical level I cannot endorse Driscoll's teaching materials. For the moment, I would side with John Piper who said, 
“The difference between John MacArthur and I at this point is I am not drawing the line that John has drawn from the imperfections of Mark’s ministry to his unfitness of his ministry. I’m not going there at this point. I’m going to Mark. I’m getting in his face now…”I’m old enough to be his dad, he knows that, and I’m in his face, pleading with him…."
Both MacArthur and Piper are deeply concerned about this man's ministry. MacArthur has chosen to draw his line, whereas Piper has decided to wait--even while publicly and privately calling for Driscoll to mature.

Though the above discussion has focused on the general crudess of Driscoll's ministry, I have equal concerns regarding his uneven hermenuetic. At times he is solidly biblical and expository in his approach to God's Word. At other times he is...well...not.   A friend recently sent me a link to this video clip where Driscoll seems to be claiming that he has the miraculous gift of "seeing things" in the lives of others. To be sure, this teaching doesn't cross over into the realm of heresy. It's just odd, and as my friend said "unhinged from the mooring of scripture". 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Five Ways of Studying the Bible

Adapted from the 8/21/2011 Sunday AM sermon:

Studying the Bible is one of the most important activities that a Christian can do. Along with prayer, Bible study is the life-blood of true discipleship. If a Christian desires to live like Christ, he must be on his knees in prayer and at his desk in study. But how does one study (and for that matter, preach) the Bible? Is there a certain method or approach that is correct?

In fact, there are several. Most Christians are instinctively drawn to a single approach, which is usually what they have most been exposed to. But to truly dig deeply into Scripture we must approach Scripture from multiple angles. Like the proverbial elephant, each approach allows us to see only a portion of the passage's truths.

The Analytical Approach – This is often called "verse-by-verse" studying, which some incorrectly equate with "Expository Preaching" (that is one form of Expository preaching). The method of this approach is to take a book or large portion of Scripture and systematically analyze each phrase in succession. Key elements to this approach are word studies and textual analysis. The greatest strength of the Analytical Approach is the attention it pays to the words and phrases used by the biblical author.

The Doctrinal Approach – This seeks to trace the Bible’s theological themes throughout all of Scripture. For example, one might seek to come to a deeper biblical understanding of God's attributes (such as God's sovereignty). He would then gather together those passages that deal with this topic and discern the Bible's overall teaching. This is the approach that Jesus recommends to the Pharisees in John 5:46. He chides them saying that if they truly understood the Pentateuch they would have believed in Jesus, essentially claiming that the doctrine of Christology can be seen in the five books of Moses. The Pharisees refused to approach Scripture this way, preferring instead an atomistic method that emphasized minutia.

The Synthetic Approach – One of the greatest weaknesses of the Analytical verse-by-verse approach is that it often leaves believers incapable of seeing the bigger picture. The Synthetic Approach strives to see how a passage fits within the “big picture” of Scripture's overarching story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. For example, is Isaac's near-sacrifice at the hands of his father merely the story of Abraham's faithfulness? Or are we able to see the larger spiritual metaphor of the salvation that the Lord would ultimately provide to his people? The greatest strength of the Synthetic Approach is that is allows us to see the forest, not just the trees.

The Historical Approach – The goal here is to understand the ways God has dealt with his people at various times in biblical history. Stephen's speech in Acts 7 is a good example of this approach. There Stephen (just before he is martyred) surveyed God's involvement with his people from the time of Abraham to his own day. He sought to place Jesus within the context of biblical history, noting that stiff-necked professing "believers" had a long-standing reputation of persecuting God's prophets. One might also use this approach to understand the differences--such as Paul's discussions of law (the old covenant) and grace (the new covenant).  This method seeks to understand the unique historical context of God's dealings with Abraham, Solomon, and Josiah (among others), noting the similarities and differences.

The Biographical Approach – This method studies the great characters that God has included in His redemptive story. It understands that the stories and characters recorded in Scripture are, in and of themselves, instructive for the modern believer. Regarding these Old Testament stories, in 1 Corinthians 10:6 Paul tells us  “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did”.  In verse 11 he goes on to say that "they were written down for our instruction." Studying and preaching biographically isn't a sub-standard way of approaching God's word--in fact the apostle Paul expressly recommends this approach!

All of these methods are expository in nature, and one is not inherently better than the other. Biblical depth happens when one finally discerns the entire elephant.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Michelle Bachmann's Wonderfully Biblical Answer

This post comes a bit delayed, but if you were able to watch the Iowa Republican debate you most certainly saw the exchange where Bachmann answered a question about submission to her husband. The question caused an immediate negative reaction from the crowd, yet Bachmann graciously and clearly answered it anyway.

I should tell you that I am otherwise not a fan of Bachmann, and (at this point) I will not vote for her in the primary. But her answer to this question impressed me. But Stephen Prothero disagrees. In an opinion piece on, Prothero quotes Colossians 3:18 and writes: 
"As it should be obvious to anyone who saw this portion of the debate, Bachmann did not answer this question. She said she respected her husband. She said he respected her. But the question was about submission, not respect."
But it is Prothero who misunderstands. The companion passage to Col 3:18 is Ephesians 5:22, which is more well known and most likely serves as the basis for Bachmann's earlier comments about submitting to her husband. In Ephesians 5:21 Paul commands all believers to "submit to one another", and then he gives several ways that submission should take place. Verses 22-33 are specifically about the mutual submission within the marriage relationship. Verses 22-24 deal with the wife's submission to her husband, and verse 25-32 deal with the husband's submission to his wife. He then offers a summary of his entire argument in verse 33.

Bachmann turned the conversation to the issue of "respect", thus earning Prothero's charge that she dodged the issue. Was this simply political manipulation? Honestly, I won't attempt to discern any politicians motivation, but here Bachmann is clearly equating the word "submission" with the concept of "respect", which is exactly the point of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5.  In verse 33 Paul gives a brief summary of everything he has just said in verses 22-32.  For the men, he sums up his earlier statements (vv25-32):
"Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."
The first part of that verse is Paul's summary of verses 25-32, which Paul aptly states is about loving your wife as yourself. This seems clear and straightforward enough. But notice how Paul summarizes and describes his earlier discussion (vv22-24) about the submission of wives: "and and let the wife see that she respects her husband".  Paul now defines what he means by "submission"--it is "respect".

Submission, biblically defined, is seeing the value of the other and placing that person in a respected and honored status. Because of that status, you willingly defer to the one respected. For Paul, it was always about respect. Bachmann seems to understand this, even if Prothero doesn't.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Is the Seeker-Sensitive Church sinful?

Yesterday was a great day for conversation. I had lots of them, on a whole host of biblical and theological subjects. One of the discussions I had was regarding the "seeker-sensitive" church (do people really still use that term?). During the conversation I was asked if I thought the movement was sinful.

Those types of questions are difficult, because they paint the entire world with only one of two brushes (black or white). The real answer is that there are (A) good seeker-sensitive churches, (B) pathetic seeker-sensitive churches and (C) sinful seeker-sensitive churches. 

A good seeker-sensitive church will have the following characteristics: (1) a heart for the lost, (2) a contemporary 'style', (3) meets people where their at by dealing with felt-needs, and (4) purposefully and effectively guides people towards God-centeredness.

A pathetic seeker-sensitive church does the first three well, but completely blows the last one. They do try, just not very hard and not very effectively.

A sinful seeker-sensitive church acts as if #3 is the ultimate and final goal in life.

Group A should be the model for all churches, at least in some format. For some churches the entire Sunday morning approach will be "seeker-sensitive" (always with goal #4 being kept in focus). For others, Sunday morning is more "meat" but they engage non-believers through various outreaches. Both approaches are fine, and I suppose it is just a matter of preference.

The second group are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are not being sinful (at least on this issue), but they are horribly ineffective. Their goals are good (e.g. "Live the purpose-driven life"), and even some of their material is helpful, but in actuality they just don't seem to end up getting to the God-centered place they claim to be taking us. They may be pointed at goal #4, but they seem to stalled at goal #3. Spiritually, its like eating at McDonald's. The food may keep you alive but it's hardly healthy.

The third group seems to have departed the Gospel altogether. They speak as if God meeting all of my wants and desires is the ultimate goal of the Gospel. Somehow in their logic God gets glory only when we all get a nice raise at work.

So, is the seeker-sensitive church sinful? It can be, even heretically so. And, if truth be told, it can also be wonderfully biblical--or sometimes just plain foolish.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to Read the Bible

The article below was grabbed from another blog which I thought to be helpful. In it the author discusses a book by Vern Poythress, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, which advocates reading Scripture from multiple perspectives. Specifically, these are:
  1. Ethical – Reading the bible to understand our duty focuses on the ethical principles and their implications for daily living and decision making. What are we to do and not do as the people of God?
  2. Devotional – Reading the bible devotionally is primarily interested in the psychological dimensions of communion with Christ. What is the inspirational thought that will help me maintain a spiritual outlook?
  3. Doctrinal – Reading the bible for doctrine typically approaches the text asking, what does this passage say about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit? What theological doctrine is being revealed here?
Poythress proposes that many people only read the bible from one perspective. He compares this to the husband who only pays attention to the mechanical utility when he shops for curtains, ignoring their aesthetical appeal. Basically, if we only read with one perspective we may only notice what we are already looking for. But what if there is more? What if we are missing something deeper? Dr. Poythress writes:
“Suppose that [one] reads the same passage of the Bible ten times. Suppose that each time the person adopts a new perspective from the ones mentioned above. Would not that person learn something new about the passage each time? A given perspective can be dangerous or stultifying if we use it all the time. But looking at a familiar passage in a fresh light can make it suddenly come alive again…consequently, each time we may notice something new or something that did not really capture our attention before. If we are to sound the depths of the passage, we need to come back to it again and again…Thus when we use a multitude of perspectives on a passage…we use each perspective to reinforce and enhance our total understanding. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Want to know the Bible better? Then read other books

Huh? OK, I realize that is a bit of a shocking statement, but I assure you it is both well-intended and biblical. Of course, whenever one goes for shock value there is always the unintended side-effect of someone taking the sentence out of context and running off thinking they've just been giving permission to stop reading their Bible. Frankly, the average Christian needs to read the Bible much, much more--not less.  But the point isn't to read the Bible less; rather, it is to intentionally read non-biblical and especially non-Christian books.

Oswald Chambers once had a conversation with a friend who bragged that he refused to read any other book other than the Bible. The friend's intention was good--he wanted to know God deeply and felt other books would only focus his mind on worldly things. Chambers gave this response:
My strong advice to you is to soak, soak, soak in philosophy and psychology, until you know more about these subjects than ever you need consciously to think. It is ignorance of these subjects on the part of ministers and workers that has brought our evangelical theology to such a sorry plight. The man who reads only the Bible does not, as a rule, know it or human life."
The apostle Paul would agree (at least in part). Earlier today I concluded a study on Acts 17:16-34 in preparation for tomorrow's worship service. That passage describes a speech Paul gave before the intellectual movers-and-shakers in Athens. The sermon is significant for many reasons, one of them being that Paul quotes from two non-Christian writers (Epimenides and Aratus). Paul read non-Christian writings in order to better understand the culture around him. I think one of the reasons Christians today have been ineffective in our evangelism and influence upon this nation is because we know neither God's word nor our own culture.
The fear, of course, is that we will read these books and become negatively influenced by them. That is a legitimate and real concern, and those who dismiss it are being naive to Satan's snares. I wouldn't let my elementary-age child read The Golden Compass any more than I would let him go off and fight in Afghanistan. On the other hand, I would probably let my 15yr old read it (if he ever expresses a desire), as it would allow us the opportunity to discuss the book's underlying atheist worldview. Reading non-Christian books (or watching non-Christian movies) is something for those who are mature in Christ.

On the other hand, at least Oswald Chambers believed that the person who refuses to read these books will never achieve spiritual maturity.

Do you agree with Chambers, or do you think he went too far?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ignoring Jesus - Conservative Christianity and the issue of Unity

John 17 has long held a preeminent place in my theological outlook. Nowhere else in Scripture do we see the tenderness of Jesus more clearly, and it is as if we were looking in through a window at the inner workings of the Trinity. While the Gospels frequently mention Jesus praying to the Father, here is a rare look at the substance of one of those prayers. During my time of vacation with the family this past week, I spent much of it meditating again on this important chapter. Two verse in particular caught my attention:
"I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one--I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought into complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (vv.22-23).
Throughout the prayer Jesus is referring to the issue of unity, repeatedly implying that true unity among God's people is grounded upon Jesus' unity with the Father. But then he goes on to define unity and demonstrate the importance of it in accomplishing the mission he gave us.

Two quick thoughts, which I'll allow you to develop on your own.

1. The ground of our unity is Christ, nothing less and nothing more (that they may be one--I in them). The ground of unity isn't a denominational perspective, Calvinism, or a certain eschatology (however important those things may be). One's view on church government simply doesn't have the power to produce unity. Though there is much these other doctrines can do, only Christ unifies. Furthermore, when secondary doctrines are used to divide God's people it becomes demonic.  Therein lies the tragic irony...what should have been the sword of an angel (good theology) is put into the hands of a demon.

If someone has embraced the Christ of Scripture, God has embraced him. If that is good enough for the Father, it should be good enough for us.

2. The world's acceptance of the Gospel is based on our demonstration of unity ("Then the world will know that you sent me"). Now things are getting serious. When I refuse to relate to another believers as a brother/sister in Christ because of theological differences, I am actually standing in opposition to the work Christ commissioned me to do. Don't misunderstand, we are never to embrace false teachers who preach "another gospel". But if someone is truly a brother, despite whatever theological differences that may exist, we are commanded to treat them as such. Refusing to do so is standing in the way of others seeing Jesus.

Heavy stuff.