Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dr. Mark Young on the Celebration of Halloween

So after Halloween, I go down the street to intentionally meet my neighbors and I knock on the first dark house. I introduce myself:

“You know my name?”

Neighbor: “Oh I’ve heard about you. You’re the professor down at DTS.”

Yeah, yeah that’s me, I’m working downtown – we were missionaries.

Neighbor: “Oh that’s wonderful; you know we really love the Lord.”

“Oh that’s good. You know I noticed on Halloween night that your house was dark.”

Neighbor: “Oh yeah, we don’t engage in Halloween.”


Neighbor: “No, no, no, we go down to the church, we have a harvest festival at church.”


Neighbor: “Yeah, yeah we believe that Halloween is the night of the devil, night of satan.”

“No kidding?”

Neighbor: “Yeah. In fact I meant to talk to you about your jack-o-lanterns, they were offensive to me.”


Neighbor: ”Yeah. You know several centuries ago in England those jack-o-lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits.

“Oh, okay.”

So I went to two or three others houses, got basically the same story. The dark houses where the Christians live. They were all at church having a harvest festival.

Why? Why would a Christian choose not to be at home on the night that 82 children walk up to your front door? What on earth would possess a Christian not to want to be there?

So I did some investigation. Indeed, you can on the Internet you can find stories of how these jack-o-lanterns were used in ancient pagan religions to scare away saints. So then I decided maybe the Internet wasn’t the best place to look. So I began to read Celtic history and began to understand a bit about that world and lo and behold I asked myself the question finally after all my reading, what difference does it make? In 1995, in south Garland [TX], what function did this cultural form fulfill? What did it do? Did it drive away demons that night? What function did that jack-o-lantern perform on October 31st, 1995 in south Garland? Because that’s the ultimate question. What did it do?

Student response: It welcomed your neighbors.

Mark: It welcomed, it welcomed people. It said to them, come up to my house tonight. It also communicated participation in this holiday. Part of a structure? Sure it’s a part of a structure. It’s a part of a structure you could call a community, a place where people lived and organized their lives with one another. Well what meaning did those 82 kids ascribe to that jack-o-lantern when they saw it or those jack-o-lanterns outside my front door? What meaning did they ascribe to? Candy! This guy has candy! Maybe he is a nice guy.

Anything in my worldview that makes me want to be a nice guy? Sure, it’s called the love of Christ for the lost. That type of cultural analysis it seems to me has far, far, far more validity than what happened with this particular kind of cultural object 600 years ago in England but yet Christians are willing to step out of their communities and not be home when 82 kids walk up to their front door because they’re bringing a function and a meaning from 600 years ago into a cultural form today.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

Muslims and Christians both worship one God, and many would argue that they are the same God. Are they?
Muslims and Christians: How to Get Along?

They both believe in one personal and transcendent God who has sent his prophets into the world. They both believe in sacred writings that record the prophetic revelations. They both believe that Jesus was a prophet who was sinless and born of a virgin. And they both worship with these beliefs firmly in place. We are speaking of Muslims and Christians, whose members comprise the two largest monotheistic religions in the world.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have become fascinated with the beliefs and practices of Islam, which is thefastest growing religion in the world, with approximately 1.3 billion adherents. Increasingly, Muslims are immigrating to the West. In various American cities, it is not uncommon to find mosques — many of them newlybuilt — and to see women in the traditional Muslim dress mingling with American women dressed quite differently.

In light of this, many Westerners wonder what do Muslims believe and why. They also question the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but merely in different ways? Should Christians seek to present their beliefs to Muslims in the hope that the Muslim might forsake Islam and embrace Christianity? Or is this simply a waste of time at best or rude at worst?

Many instruct us to be "tolerant" and to refrain from "proselytizing" anyone. In the name of tolerance, some people say that Christians and Muslims should coexist without trying to convert (or otherwise challenge) each other because "Christians and Muslims worship the same God." This, many believe, should be good enough for Muslims and Christians. Many also believe this arrangement is good enough for the God they both worship as well. If both religions worship the same God, why should they worry about each other's spiritual state?

Religion, God and Truth

If indeed Muslims and Christians worship the same God, there would be little need for disagreement, dialogue, and debate between them. If I am satisfied to shop at one grocery store and you are satisfied to shop at another store, why should I try to convince you to shop at my store or vice versa? Do not both stores provide the food we need, even if each sells different brands? The analogy is tidy, but does it really fit? Deeper questions need to be raised if we are to settle the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. First, what are the essential teachings of Christianity and Islam? Second,what does each religion teach about worshipping its God? Third, what does each religion teach about the other religion? That is, do the core teachings of Islam and Christianity assure their adherents that members of the other religion are fine as they are because both religions "worship the same God"?

In When Religion Becomes Evil (Harper. San Francisco, 2002), Charles Kimball argues that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. Kimball rightly observes that truth claims are foundational for religion. But he claims that believers err when they hold their religious beliefs in a "rigid" or "absolute" manner. So, he argues, when some Christians criticize the Islamic view of God (Allah) as deficient, they reveal their ignorance and bigotry. Kimball asserts that "there is simply no ambiguity here. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same deity" (p. 50). This is because the Qur'an affirms that Allah inspired the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Moreover, the Arabic word "Allah" means "God." Are Professor Kimball and so many others who echo similar themes correct? In search of a reasonable answer, we will briefly consider the three questions from the last paragraph.

Christianity and Islam: The Claims, the Logic, and the Differences

First, what are the teachings that each religion takes to be absolutely true? Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably. Islam denies that God is a Trinity — that one God eternally exists as three co-eternal and equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).[1] Islam also rejects that God became a man in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18).[2] These doctrines are cornerstones of Christianity. But God cannot be both a Trinity (Christian) and not a Trinity (Islam). This is matter of simple logic; it has nothing to do with religious intolerance or being "rigid."

For Christianity, humans are corrupted by an inherited sinful nature that cannot be overcome by any human means (Ephesians 2:1-10). But Islam denies that human have a deeply sinful human nature, claiming that we sin because we are merely weak and ignorant.[3] Christianity teaches that salvation is secured only through faith in the achievements of Jesus Christ — his life, death, and resurrection (John 3:16-18). Islam, however, implores its followers to obey the laws of the Qur'an in the hopes that they will be found worthy of paradise.[4] Since these two views contradict each other, both views cannot be true.

Second, how does each religion say worship should be offered to God? Muslims deem worship of the Trinity to be polytheistic and thus blasphemous. Worship of Jesus — whom they deem only human — is anathema. Yet these beliefs are essential for Christian worship. One must worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Worship requires assent to the truth of God (the Trinity), belief in the gospel, trust in Jesus Christ, and submission to God’s will. While Muslims emphasize submission to Allah ("Islam" means submission), they do not submit to the God revealed in the Bible. This exposes another irreconcilable difference between Islam and Christianity.

Third, what does each religion make of the other one? Muslims and Christians have historically tried to convert each other, since they both view adherents of other religions to be misguided. Islam seeks converts worldwide because it believes Allah is supreme over all and must be so recognized. Christians are commanded to take the gospel into all the nations and to baptize converts into the name of the triune God of the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20).

Neither Christianity nor Islam can logically endorse the other religion’s distinctive claims and practices without denying its own.

Much more needs to be discussed concerning Muslim and Christian relations in a religiously pluralistic world. However, we must conclude that despite their common monotheism, Islam and Christianity have very different views of God, worship, and mission. Therefore, it is unreasonable to claim that they worship the same God. Although Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, their views of God differ considerably.

Copyright © 2005 Douglas Groothuis. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.


[1] See The Qur'an, Surah 112:1-4, which denies that God "begat" a son. Surah 4:171 commands Muslims to not say "three" with respect to God; see also Surah 5:73. However, the Qur'an claims that the Christian doctrine of Trinity affirms that it is comprised of the Father, the Son, and Mary (Surah 5:116). The Bible, however, never attributes deity to Mary. For more on how the Qur'an understands Jesus and the Trinity, see Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian's Perspective on Islam and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 184-195. [Return to article]

[2] See The Qur'an, Surah 5:115-18 where Jesus is reported to have denied his own deity; see also Surah 9:30-31. [Return to article]

[3] See Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth[Return to article] (Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 1997), 89-90.

[4] See the Qur’an, Surah 36:54; see also Surah 82:19. [Return to article]

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Machete of Curiosity

from Blog and Mablog by Douglas Wilson

So, then, the issues are perennial, but the terms are not. Anyone working through the tangled weave of religion and politics may need some help with terms. Anyone whacking away at the thicket of culture and faith with the machete of curiosity could probably use a simple lexicon. It seems only fair to provide some basic definitions.

By mere Christendom, I mean a network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgment of the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the fundamental truth of the Apostles' Creed. I do not mean establishment or tax support for any particular denomination of Christians, but it is possible (and necessary) to avoid such establishment without falling for the myth of religious neutrality. Religious neutrality is impossible. So mere Christendom stands in contrast to sectarian Christendom on the one hand and complete secularism on the other. Approaching these alternatives from the middle distance are the claims of radical Islam, about which more in a minute.

Secularism refers to the idea, popular for the last few centuries, that it is in fact possible for nations to be religiously neutral. This impressive trick is managed by having everyone pretend that secularism does not bring with it its very own set of ultimate commitments. But it does bring them, and so secularism has presented us with its very own salvation narrative, in which story the Enlightened One arose to deliver us all from that sectarian strife and violence. The horse and rider were thrown into the sea, and this is why you can't put that Christmas tree up in the county courthouse.

American exceptionalism is the idea that America is a more of a creed than a nation. This kind of American exceptionalism makes a certain kind of civic religion possible, a quasi-sacramental approach which all consistent Christians reject as, in equal turns, blasphemous and silly. American exceptionalism in this sense is currently the high church form of secularism.

American exceptionalism is not the grateful recognition that we live in a nation that has been enormously blessed in many ways. What might be called normal patriotism is not idolatrous, but is simply natural affection.

Radical Islam is a Christian heresy, but one of the features that it retained in its departure from the truth was the idea that religious claims are total and absolute. Islam functioned in this way for many centuries, competing head to head with the Christians, before the Enlightenment arrived in order to demote all religious totalism (except for their own). Muslims who have accepted the claims of this secularism are now called "moderate" Muslims, while Muslims who are faithful to the older, all-encompassing claims of Islam are called radical Muslims. The word radical comes from the Latin radix, which means root. Radical Muslims have gone to the root of the matter, and they are the ones who at least understand the nature of the conflict. If Allah is God, then follow him. If he isn't, then we shouldn't.

And I would say the same thing about Jesus. If He is Lord, we should do what He says. If He is not, then we needn't bother.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Christians are not Christians on Halloween. Not because they have compromised and participated, but precisely because they don’t participate. The one day of the year where children (“Permit them to come to me…” Mark 10:14) were attempting to come to us and we shut the door and turn off the lights.

When our boys were little tikes, we would take them to our church on All Hallows Eve for a fun-filled night of games and candy. We did this for years. I repent. We missed some major opportunities.

The reason I propose that good Christians celebrate Halloween and stay home from the “Christian alternatives” is that Halloween is the only night of the year in our culture where lost people actually go door-to-door to saved people’s homes

on All Hallows’ Eve, the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ—we have NO FEAR!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Looking for Satire in the Bible

An interview with pastor and author Douglas Wilson about his book A Serrated Edge, which highlights satire in the Scriptures.

I can’t help noticing absurdity in the world around me. So when I see folks hawking corny religious t-shirts and kitschy paintings in the name of Jesus, my snarky side comes out. I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t be thrilled with those silly manifestations of sentimentalized faith. If I didn’t believe in the resurrection, I’d assume he was spinning in his grave.

Yet I feel out of place when I call attention to this sort of consumerism masquerading as belief. Other Christians tell me not to be so negative–kitsch must minister to somebody. Precious Moments figurines can’t be all bad if they have Bible verses on them. (Never mind that the Pharisees were pretty good at quoting Scripture, too.) It just isn’t comfortable to criticize others in the family of faith: People think you’re doing a disservice to the Church.

So when I find someone else—ANYONE else—who’s also fighting for truth, justice, and the end of Jesus Junk, I rejoice! A while back, I ran across a book called A Serrated Edge: A Brief Defense of Biblical Satire and Trinitarian Skylarking, and immediately sensed a kindred spirit. Author Douglas Wilson asserts that satire–when used on its proper objects–is not only appropriate, but even a sort of Christian duty.

Through the magic of long-distance, I tracked down Wilson in the wilds of Idaho for an interview. He’s the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho; the founder of several ministries, including Canon Press; and the author of more books than I can count on my toes. He’s also a prolific blogger at, a grandfather, and a Calvinist (but I’ll try not to hold that against him). Here’s what the good reverend had to say about satire and Scripture.

GEORGE HALITZKA: In your book, you assert that satire is actually used in the Bible! Can you give me a few examples?

DOUGLAS WILSON: Sure! Probably the best example would be Matthew 23, where Jesus goes after the Pharisees and makes fun of all kinds of things—even things that some people would say are theologically irrelevant. You know, he makes fun of how wide their phylacteries are, and how they like their flowing robes, and the length of their prayers. He is doing the work of a traditional polemical satirist. So one of the things I argue in the book is that if we Christians want to be like Jesus . . . we’re not. It’s a variation on the WWJD bracelet—“What would Jesus make fun of?” Some would say, “Well, Jesus is the son of God; he wouldn’t make fun of anything.” But they’re not paying attention when they read the New Testament.

GH: If satire is so abundant in the ministry of Jesus, why do we see it as being unbiblical in contemporary Christianity?

DW: Well, when someone says, “I’m just trying to imitate Jesus [by using satire],” the response is, “You’re not Jesus, pal! You don’t walk on water, either.” That shows how we are being arbitrary in our principles of selection. Someone says, “Well, Jesus did it perfectly. You’re not going to do it perfectly—therefore you ought not to try it at all.” So why don’t we apply that to other virtues? Jesus loved people perfectly, but I’m not going to love people perfectly—so why should I try it at all? There are certain virtues Christ exhibits that Christians insist we must imitate, however badly. But they don’t apply that to satire, even though satire is such an abundant presence throughout the whole Bible. Amos wrote an entire book making fun of things! Jesus does it; Paul does it–

GH: Still, many Christians think that satire is inherently risky. How can it glorify God?

DW: By lampooning that which does not glorify God. Paul says knowledge puffs up, and when something is puffed up, what you need is a good, sharp pin. When someone applies the pinprick to the balloon of self-important knowledge, the balloon explodes! That glorifies God because the puffed-up knowledge was in defiance of God.

GH: In our broader culture, whenever we tell people “this is what the Bible says”—through satire or otherwise—we’re accused of being arrogant. Why is that?

DW: Because our society has the definition of arrogance upside-down. It’s a good example of Isaiah 5:20—“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.” If a preacher gets in the pulpit and tells anecdotes about his summer vacation or the quarrel he had with his wife on the way to church—in other words, talks about himself the entire time—he will be thought to be humble and transparent. If someone gets into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and says, “This is the Truth. It would be the Truth had I never been born; I am irrelevant,” he’s going to seem to everyone to be arrogant. “Where does he get off telling us what the Bible says?” So we’ve got our definitions of arrogance and humility in almost a photo-negative inversion. And that’s one of the reasons why satire is so necessary.

GH: Obviously, our culture uses a lot of satire—I’m thinking of The Daily Show or The Onion. And you can’t read too much of it without seeing something that lampoons Christianity. How should we respond when somebody satirizes believers in Christ?

DW: We disapprove of them using that weapon on God’s people—unless, and this is the important thing—let’s say Jon Stewart on The Daily Show attacks hypocrisy in the church. Then I say, “Be my guest!” But if he, in an unjust way, extrapolates to the whole and says, “There’s no such thing as righteousness” or “All Christians are idiots”—then of course I object to that. And the reason I object is because the contest is between right and wrong; truth and error. It’s not like a football game on a level playing field. The fact that Jesus called the Pharisees whitewashed sepulchers does not mean that they get to call him demon-possessed and a glutton.

GH: That didn’t stop them.

DW: Right, but here’s what I mean: in a football game, clipping is a foul for both teams. The ref is going to call clipping regardless of your affiliation. But when Jesus calls them a name, the name is accurate. He’s telling the truth. When they call him a name, they’re telling a lie. There’s not a level playing field. Now, how would I express my disapproval of Jon Stewart? I think what we need to do is learn how to counter what they’re saying in an effective way. The stock, caricatured response of the conservative Christian is shrill and schoolmarm-ish. I think we need Christians who can deftly handle that kind of attack—return fire in an effective way.

GH: So we should fight fire with fire; satire with satire?

DW: Well, not quite—fight unclean fire with clean fire. We should say, “What have I learned from Scripture about how to handle this thing?” One of the things that has exasperated me for years is when Christians get out there to do battle for righteousness’ sake—and God bless them for it—the thing that is counterproductive is when they come off as shrill. They write letters to the editor with a fisted crayon—you know, “I are so mad.”

GH: Some would argue that when Christians engage in satire at all, it has the effect of chasing away unbelievers. Yet you see it as being potentially redemptive?

DW: Absolutely! Think of it this way: Imagine that you’re an intelligent non-christian. Maybe your life is screwed up and you know it. So you’re sort of ripe for [hearing about faith]. But what image do you have of Christianity? Well, everything you know about Christians you learned from TBN, the religious broadcasting network.

GH: God forbid!

DW: You think, “That’s what people look like who believe in the Bible.” Now, suppose a group of Christians who also believe the Bible make fun of that stuff. It shows the intelligent non-christians that there are Believers who are willing to police their own ranks. We’re not willing to give anything and everything a pass so long as it’s done in the name of Jesus.

GH: Well, it seems from your book that you find a lot of things to critique in modern evangelicalism.

DW: It’s what the Navy calls a “target-rich environment.”

GH: So what do you think Jesus would do if he saw our “Christian” media—radio stations; magazines; books; Thomas Kinkade paintings?

DW: If he went to the CBA (Christian Booksellers’ Association) convention, Jesus would be there all day turning over the tables.

GH: What do you think he would say to them?

DW: “You workers of iniquity!” [he would say]. “’Satan Stomper’ socks? What are you doing with ‘Satan Stomper’ socks? And what are these ‘Testamints’? Breath fresheners; what’s this about?” This kind of marketing hucksterism preys upon the simple. I don’t think Jesus would be attacking the people who are consumers of these products. I think he’d be attacking the cynical businessmen who’re raking it in.

GH: Well, certain things obviously need to be held up to ridicule. But other examples are a little less clear-cut. I notice on your website that Canon Press offers a book called Right Behind (a satire of the Left Behind series of end-times novels) and another entitled The Mantra of Jabez (lampooning devotional book The Prayer of Jabez). How do you respond to people who say, “You’re just mocking people who are ministering in different ways.” If they’re building the Kingdom of God, why go after them?

DW: If we’re simply talking about methodologies—you know, one person preaches to large crowds; another is a skilled personal evangelist—I think we should leave that kind of thing entirely alone. But The Prayer of Jabez was a “life is a vending machine—put the nickel in” approach to spirituality. It was a gross distortion of Biblical theology. And so we thought it was ripe for The Mantra of Jabez. Right Behind and Supergeddon were sendups of the Left Behind series. The point there is that you are making a bazillion dollars from getting people to believe the world’s gonna last for three more weeks—and that’s false.

GH: But don’t you think Left Behind encourages people to consider the Bible’s claims that Christ can return at any time?

DW: Yes, but a lot of people became Christians in the 1970s because of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth—a mega-bestseller. According to Lindsey’s early predictions, the world was supposed to end in 1988. It hasn’t, but he’s still making money; he’s still writing books. He didn’t cover his mouth in embarrassment and walk off the stage, saying “I’m not really qualified to be doing this anymore.” I think that’s where satire is appropriate. “Look, isn’t this sort of thing false prophesy according to the Bible?”

GH: Well, one hopes that LaHaye and Jenkins (co-authors of Left Behind) were trying to impact the culture redemptively–whether they raked in millions in royalties or not. Some might say, “Wilson, you’re living in a small town, preaching to a small church, writing for a small Christian publisher—almost everything you do is aimed at other Christians. Who are you to criticize LaHaye and Jenkins for their outreach efforts?”

DW: That’s a fair objection. But I’m thinking of something King Lune of Archenland told one of his sons in The Horse and His Boy, by C. S. Lewis: “Never make fun of someone unless he’s bigger or stronger than you—and then as you please.” So I acknowledge that the satirist’s position is almost always that of an establishment outsider. That’s something you see consistently throughout the Scriptures as well. Usually it’s a prophet coming out of the desert, answerable to nobody. Certain people will think, “Who are you, and what seminary did you go to?” But other people will think, “What he’s saying is right.” That’s what this is all about.

GH: As you’re attacking Left Behind or Jabez, you have to be wondering, “What will the neighbors think?” I mean, this stuff won’t make you the confidante or presidents or get you invited to speak at Christian conferences.

DW: That’s a good point. Over the years, people have come to me with concern over my use of satire. Generally, their objections fall into one of two categories. The first one is, “I don’t think what you’re doing is Biblical.” So my response is, “That’s a fair objection—let’s have a Bible study.” That’s where the serrated edge comes out; it’s the result of careful Bible study. When you’ve convinced the objector that this is a Biblical thing, then they say, “Well, it may be Biblical, but I think it’s counterproductive.” To be frank, I’ve found that to be exactly the opposite of the truth. The more we’ve done this, the more we’ve seen our ministry grow and prosper; the more we’ve had an impact on people’s lives. So if this use of satire is slowing anything down, we haven’t noticed.

GH: As a satirist—when you launch an “attack”—how do you avoid the “Everybody else is screwed up, but I’m okay” mentality?

DW: I believe that a satirist is to be someone who knows how to live and is a peaceful member of a worshipping community. He’s got to be the kind of man whose wife and kids don’t flinch when he comes into the room. He’s got to know how to turn it off. It needs to be a weapon that he picks up when the situation calls for it, and puts down when the situation doesn’t call for it. Satire is a tool meant to accomplish certain things that the Bible defines—not just something to be done willy-nilly.

GH: I’ve been known to dabble in satire a little myself. And I have to admit, often it comes out of a tendency towards being critical.

DW: That’s true.

GH: So even if writing satire doesn’t cause arrogance, sometimes it can result in bitterness. How do you stop yourself from slipping away from joy?

DW: That’s a great question. One of the things I would recommend—aside from worshipping God and reading his Word—is a healthy dose of the right kind of satire. I would call it a sunny satirical disposition as opposed to the dour Jonathon Swift kind. I urge people who think that they might be drifting that way, towards a hard-bitten cynicism, to read C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. Among nonbelievers, I think H. L. Mencken had that kind of sunny disposition. Although he knew how to hit hard, I don’t think I pick up personal malice in what he was doing. You want to be around people who you think have gotten the tone right.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Piper on Battles

  • When I am anxious about some risky new venture or meeting, I battle unbelief with the promise: “Fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God; I will help you, I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
  • When I am anxious about my ministry being useless and empty, I fight unbelief with the promise, “So shall my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not come back to me empty but accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
  • When I am anxious about being too weak to do my work, I battle unbelief with the promise of Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “As your days so shall your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).
  • When I am anxious about decisions I have to make about the future, I battle unbelief with the promise, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).
  • When I am anxious about facing opponents, I battle unbelief with the promise, “If God is for us who can be against us!” (Romans 8:31).
  • When I am anxious about being sick, I battle unbelief with the promise that “tribulation works patience, and patience approvedness, and approvedness hope, and hope does not make us ashamed” (Romans 5:3–5).
  • When I am anxious about getting old, I battle unbelief with the promise, “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).
  • When I am anxious about dying, I battle unbelief with the promise that “none of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself; if we live we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9–11).
  • When I am anxious that I may make shipwreck of faith and fall away from God, I battle unbelief with the promise, “He who began a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6). “He who calls you is faithful. He will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). “He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

6 Reasons to Love Church History

Christian History is a fascinating, deeply important topic. A friend recently asked me why I love it and so, without further ado, here are 6 reasons:

Church history answers tough, foundational questions

As a young Christian I had tough nagging questions for which I could never find satisfactory answers… until studying church history.

For example, the canonization of scripture: Why is the Bible made of these particular 66 books? Who chose them? Where did they come from? What criteria did they use? What books didn’t make the cut and why? Why do catholics have a different set of books? When was the canon established and what of the church before that time?

Church History helped answer these questions and bring peace that I can trust my Bible. Likewise with many other foundational questions.

Church history teaches the continuity of our faith and beliefs

Especially as a child raised in the Protestant Church, continuity was a question looming large in my mind. I wanted certainty I had not been duped by some crazy left turn in the 1500s. Through all the trouble and turmoil of the ancient and early Church, a study of her history reveals God’s work on a faithful remnant, the Church universal. A core orthodoxy stretches from the apostles down to us today. Yes, I can tie my faith back to the beginning. Church history helps me understand where I’ve come from and who I am!

History provides a context to better understand doctrine

The Church began as a child and grew into maturity. She faced challenges and questions over time, but overcame them one by one. Rather than swallowing two millenia of theological discourse, through Church history we have the opportunity to build and layer our personal knowledge in manageable bites. Furthermore, doctrinal statements come alive when understanding the historical context. Doctrine is not a collection of irrelevant or superfluous ideas. Rather, doctrinal statements arose in the face of real world issues. Issues that matter to our lives today.

The past provides a warning for the future and builds discernment

One might be surprised to find the popular trends and thoughts of the church today clearly playing out in the past. Ideas cast as fresh and new are often nothing more than a resurgent historical concept – whether known or unknown to those swept up in the idea. We can understand where trends and ideas are likely to lead by understanding our past. We can build discernment to see beyond the surface. No one wakes up and decides to be a heretic. Knowledge of the past builds a reservour to signal red flags when appropriate, to know the questions to ask, and keep us moving in the straight and narrow by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Inspiring heroes to personally identify with

Far from a dry collection of facts, history provides thousands of real heroes. Some with backgrounds or personalities like ours which can bring encouragement to see God using such individuals. Others we find so unlike us in accomplishment that we are challenged or inspired. Still others faced situations so incomprehensibly dire compared to our own that we are humbled. Nothing teaches and sticks with us quite like the examples of others.

Christian History builds faith by revealing how God still moves in his Church

History is messy. Our heroes imperfect. Yet God is always at work.

The light of the gospel – “its flame often sank low, and appeared about to expire, yet never did it wholly go out. God remembered His covenant with the light, and set bounds to the darkness” (J.A. Wylie). Christian history tells, “How that seed was deposited in the soil; how the tree grew up and flourished despite the furious tempests that warred around it; how, century after century, it lifted its top higher in heaven, and spread its boughs wider around” (Wylie).


In the interest of space and time I will follow up with recommended resources, save for one quoted above:

J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism – available online

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Preaching" by Doug Wilson

What Preaching Is

Preaching is the authoritative declaration of the Word and will of God, with the intention of revealing Christ to the hearers. Christ is seen through a window, and not painted on the wall. The medium of the preacher is to be Windex, not oil base paint. This definition has three components -- the manner, the content, and the purpose of the message. The manner is authoritative declaration. The content is the deposit given to us in Scripture, in all its parts and relations. The purpose or goal is to declare Christ, and make Him known.

The goal of preaching is not controversial among evangelical believers, although when we expand on the first two elements, we will discover that the goal, while not having been altered, has nonetheless grown enormously.

Authoritative declaration is first. The sermon is not a place where men give their opinions about God. The sermon is the place where Christ speaks through His ordained heralds. The minister should go to church expecting Christ to speak through Him there. The congregants should go to church expecting to hear Christ speak. This relates to the goal of revealing Christ. In the last analysis, only Christ can reveal Christ, but He has chosen to do so through His servants.

"How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14)

I cite this verse in order to quarrel with a particular translation in part of it. "Of whom" should actually be "whom." How shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear Christ without a preacher?

So then we come to the content. The preacher is to be a man of the Scriptures, steeped in them. Preaching scripturally does not mean sweating over this text or that one, trying to wring it out like a dishcloth, but rather reading the Bible such that he comes to understand the narrative of the whole Bible, and is able to explain that narrative to his listeners, regardless of which text is his starting point.

Christ is to be found throughout the Bible, and to fail to reveal Him through that particular window is really a function of some form of unbelief. When the Scriptures are preached in all their appropriate parts and relations, the result is necessarily Christocentric.

Preaching Christ from all of Scripture will protect us from various distortions and hobby horses. Christ is not the Victorian pantywaist. Christ is not the liberation freedom fighter. Christ is not the distant Byzantine angry guy. Christ is the Savior of the world.

Preaching and Cultural Transformation

Early on in Moby Dick, Melville has this great statement about preaching, comparing it to the bow of a ship.

"What could be more full of meaning? -- for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God's quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow" (Melville, Moby Dick, p. 60).

Preaching is an instrument of cultural transformation, not because preaching is motivational speaking in a highly charged religious manner, but rather because preaching reveals the Christ, who is the Savior of the world.

So church services are not rallies. The speaker is not there to get the troops whipped up so that they go out there and "make a difference." They will make a difference, and God bless them, and future historians will be able to write learnedly about it. But that is not the mechanism that makes this work.

Because of sin, the world is chaotic, formless. There are remnants of the previous forms, but sin has done its destructive work. Over this chaos, the Spirit of God moves on the face of the waters. And then what happens? God speaks, and when God speaks, He names. And when He names, what He names comes to be. And He speaks through His ordained speakers.

We have to get away from this notion that naming is a matter of attaching labels so that we can keep track of things. Naming shapes, naming forms. When I speak of the coming glories in the future of this sorry planet, I am not predicting, as though I were an observer on a balcony somewhere. "Don't bother me right now," the preacher might think. "I am busy making a new world."

And of course this elicits a charge -- just who do you think you are? Oh, I don't know. Just a nobody that is not sufficent for these things, just like St. Paul wasn't either, only much worse than that.

Pulpit Sins

Pulpit sins can be divided into two general categories -- sins of attitude and sins of delivery. Mechanics of the pulpiteering arts want to reduce everything to the latter, but the real adjustments in our day have to begin with the former. This is nothing less than the classic Pauline division between credenda and agenda, things to be believed and things to be done.

This not to say that delivery is unimportant -- it is actually crucial. "And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed" (Acts 14:1). The way they spoke had something to do with the results. But the way they thought and believed had something to do with the way they spoke.

The principal pulpit sin of attitude is unbelief. Not knowing what God has said about preaching, or knowing it and not believing it, results in other attitudinal sins. Those other sins would include things like timidity, the fear of man, and arrogance, which results in others falling into the fear of man. And of course there are some petty sins of attitude as well -- vanity, for instance. But no matter who you are, or where in church history you are, the act of preaching should require courage.

Some common sins of delivery include the following: 1. Being bored with the material, and therefore being boring with it. 2. Running out of material ten minutes before the end of the sermon, and circling the airport aimlessly until it is time to land. 3. Preaching the whole counsel of God every fifteen minutes or so. 4. Refusing to enunciate. 5. Garbling your point so that you are, like the last of the Mohicans in the deep woods, very hard to follow. 6. Hopping from one foot to the other like you were a cat on hot bricks. 7. Thinking that conviction of sin comes through yelling and upbraiding. 8. Drawing attention to yourself instead of away from yourself.

There are others, but you get the drift.

The Holy Spirit and Sermon Prep

We must first smite and slay the extempore bias. From at least the time of Rousseau, we have been taught that that which is spontaneous is that which is honest, fresh, sincere, and untrammeled. On the other end, we have been taught that that which is prepared beforehand is stiff and insincere.

But like many very effective lies, there is an important truth here. You do want it to be fresh. But that is why you have to prepare to be fresh. You will get what you prepare to get. Freshness is no accident. When preparation results in stale messages, it is because you didn't seal the bag right. If you want fresh, then prepare for fresh. This is the discipline of a pianist practicing scales so that she can sit down and play a glorious piece "spontaneously."

But before the message can be fresh, the man must be. Prepare the man before you prepare the message. The first issue relates to character -- confess sin, grow in grace, resist temptation, feed your soul something other than spiritual Doritos.

Then there is your family, the place where the man lives and thrives . . . or not. Love your wife, spend time with her, love your children, give yourself to them. Your household is your first church, your foundational church, your probationary church. Don't work on your sermon all week, and give your family the dregs of your time. Give yourself to your family in such a way that you have something to say to your second church.

Third, you prepare the man who will preach the Word by concerning yourself with his mind and heart. Feed that part of you that will be doing the preaching. Read, listen, grow. What constitutes the leaf mold of your mind? What is composting there? Don't read like you were studying for a test. Read like you are covering the forest floor with half a foot of leaves. Don't bother keeping track of them.

Then we come to the mechanics of sermon prep, remembering that the Holy Spirit doesn't pop into existence on Sunday morning. In learning about this, don't copy slavishly. Don't let a tuba player teach you how to carry your snare drum. Work through this kind of thing selectively.

That said, Wednesdays are my sermon day. I try to have the outline done by late morning or early afternoon. If I have a topic or a fresh idea that has been forming in my mind, then I just do the outline. If I am preaching through a book, then the first part of the day consists of reading in the commentaries, followed by composition of the outline.

My outlines follow this general pattern: 1. Intro 2. Summary of the text, which unpacks the text in such a way that every major teaching is repeated, along with any necessary contextualization. 3. Three or so major points from the text that I want to develop or apply at greater length. 4. Conclusion and application.

This outline is almost always done by Wednesday. I then leave it to sit for a few days. I pick it up again sometime Saturday and read through it. Sunday morning I look at it again, and jot down any additional thoughts I may have in the margins. I then preach from the outline. My outlines are generally around 1,200 words, and an average sermon would be about 5,000 words.

On Sunday morning, I get up at 6 am to spend a couple hours reading in books that I have set aside for Sunday morning only. They sometimes give me something that appears in the message, but their main purpose is to frame my heart. For example, I read from Scripture, Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer, Pilgrim's Progress, The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney, George Herbert's The Temple, Spenser's The Fairie Queen, and Dante's Divine Comedy.

I also spend time composing prayers for the Lord's Day. These are written prayers, but are just for personal use, not for use anywhere public. I open a file on my computer, and begin to write out my prayer. After a bit of work on that, I offer it to the Lord. The next week I open the same file and expand that prayer. I do this for some months, until the prayer is a couple pages long. Then I close that file, and start a new one. Everyone once in a while, I rotate through the older prayers. These are (my) prayers for the worship service primarily.

The Spirit is with you as a minister of Christ. There is no reason that the Holy Spirit cannot bless you in the study as well as in the pulpit, if you are rightly seeking that blessing. You are His servant in both the preparation and the delivery. Why would He be with you in one place and not in the other?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Listen Up!

Good recommendations from Tim Challies

As Christians we sit through a lot of sermons. The preaching ministry is one of God’s greatest means of grace to us, the means by which he teaches us truth, by which he calls us to pursue truth and to live out of it. And yet many of us are passive listeners, people who expect great preaching skill from the pastor but demand no listening skill from ourselves.

Lately I have come across a few resources dedicated to helping Christians be better listeners, to help them emphasize active listening. Here are three of them, each with a few words of description and an overview of the contents. If you have never read a book on how to listen to a sermon, I’d encourage you to do that. Take full advantage of the privilege you have of sitting under the ministry of the Word!

Helping Johnny Listen

Helping Johnny ListenHelping Johnny Listen by Thadeus Bergmeier. “The preaching of God’s Word happens tens of thousands of times each week across the world. As these sermons are given, when the preacher is faithful to the text of the Scripture, it is as if God is speaking to the people of that given congregation. The question is, are people listening? Listening to preaching is more than showing up, sitting still or even nodding one’s head. It is taking that which is preached and applying it to life. Helping Johnny Listen is a book designed to help the average person who sits in the average church on the average Sunday take full advantage of the sermons they hear so that they are able to live what they hear.”

Thad’s book is written from a pastoral perspective and is applicable to any level of listener. I was glad to see that he included a section on the difficulties of being a preacher and a listener in the Internet age—when better sermons by better preachers are available in the millions online. He focuses on the importance of being a faithful listener within the long context of a single local church.

Here is how he structures the book:

  1. The Preaching Intersection
  2. Receive the Preaching of God’s Word
  3. Examine the Preaching of God’s Word
  4. Live the Preaching of God’s Word
  5. Persevere the Preaching of God’s Word

($20 at Amazon)

Expository Listening

Expository ListeningExpository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey. “In many people’s mind, if they don’t get anything out of the sermon, it’s the preacher’s fault. But that’s only half true. The Bible teaches that listeners must partner with the preacher so that the Word of God accomplishes its intended purpose of transforming their life. Expository Listening is your handbook on biblical listening. It is designed to equip you not only to understand what true, biblical preaching sounds like, but also how to receive it, and ultimately, what to do about it. You need to know how to look for the Word of God, to love the Word of God, and to live the Word of God. In this way, God and His Word will be honored and glorified through your life.”

Ken’s book is also written at a popular level and, with just 110 pages of text, is quite a manageable read. It comes endorsed by John MacArthur, Joel Beeke, Jay Adams, Lance Quinn, Thabiti Anyabwile and yours truly.

He follows this structure:

  1. Welcoming the Word
  2. A Theology of Listening
  3. Hearing with Your Heart
  4. Harrowing Your Heart to Hear
  5. The Itching Ear Epidemic
  6. The Discerning Listener
  7. Practice What You Hear
  8. Listening Like Your Life Depends on It

($10.19 at Amazon | $10.07 at Westminster Books)

Listen Up

Listen UpListen Up by Christopher Ash. “Why on earth does anyone need a guide on how to listen to sermons? Don’t we simply need to ‘be there’ and stay awake? Yet Jesus said: ‘Consider carefully how you listen.’ The fact is, much more is involved in truly listening to Bible teaching than just sitting and staring at the preacher. Christopher Ash outlines seven ingredients for healthy listening. He then deals with how to respond to bad sermons - ones that are dull, or inadequate, or heretical. And finally, he challenges us with ideas for helping and encouraging our Bible teachers to give sermons that will really help us to grow as Christians.”

Ash’s book is actually just a booklet, weighing in at only 31 pages. The beauty of this one is that very thing—its brevity. This is the kind of booklet you can buy in bulk and distribute widely. Many churches hand it out to all of their members as a reminder of their duty to listen. In those 31 pages, Ash packs in quite a lot of value. The book is an an attractive, fun, easy-to-read format that will make people want to read it.

Here is the way he breaks down the subject:

  1. Expect God to Speak
  2. Admit God Knows Better Than You
  3. Check the Preacher Says What the Passage Says
  4. Hear the Sermon in Church
  5. Be There Week by Week
  6. Do What the Bible Says
  7. Do What the Bible Says Today—and Rejoice!
  8. How to Listen to Bad Sermons
  9. Suggestions for Encouraging Good Preaching

($2.39 at Westminster Books, discounts for bulk purchasing)