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Parables of Jesus

February 19, 2009

In our Wednesday night study at Mission Presbyterian we’ve been studying the parables of Jesus.  How many times have you done something like that, focused only on the parables as an object of study – or how many times have you even heard of someone doing it?  This is not to toot our own horn, but to draw attention to the book I’ve been using as my primary guide: Stories with Intent, by Klyne Snodgrass.  I’d never heard of Dr. Snodgrass before this book, but let me say that he’s done absolute yeoman’s work in this very comprehensive, in-depth, yet very accessible work on all of Jesus’ parables.  I have learned a ton.  Our group seems to be learning a lot as well, and enjoying the study.

The book is well worth buying, and well worth the time put into reading it and learning from it.  The greatest benefit is gaining a better understanding of Jesus’ parables, insight into His own teaching and Word, and what it means for us as His followers.

I should also thank Green Baggins, because I’m pretty sure it was on his web site that I first heard about this book.

Justification – So What?

February 12, 2009

With this post I hope to get back to blogging, and at the same time start a series of occasional posts on the intersection between doctrine and practice in the Christian life.

Doctrine and practice go together.  That should go without saying.  Still, some spend more time focusing on doctrine, assuming practice will automatically follow as people understand doctrine better.  Others seem to care more about practical application – 5 steps to achieve this or that better life – while assuming the only doctrine that matters is that people know Jesus.  This is an oversimplification, but serves as a short intro to what I hope to cover in this occasional series: that getting doctrine right has practical implications, and that we can and should be equally concerned about teaching and learning both, assuming neither.

For me, a classic example is found in the doctrine of justification.  A few years ago at a presbytery meeting, a young man was being examined (for licensure as I recall) and being asked some standard questions.  Among them was Question 33 from the Shorter Catechism: What is justification?  Like many of his other responses, his answer was clearly memorized: Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.  That answer is right, and it is good.  Nothing wrong at all with knowing the catechism.  When questions were opened up to the floor, one presbyter commented on the young man’s accurate memory of the catechism and then asked how the doctrine of justification impacted the man’s daily life.   My initial reaction was how unfair and “touchy-feely” a question that was.  But then almost immediately I thought otherwise, especially as the young man struggled to give a meaningful answer.

I thought a lot about that question on my long drive home after presbytery.  I realized that the answer to the presbyter’s question is really embedded in the catechism answer itself, if we just think about it and apply it.  I believe a correct, solid comprehension of the doctrine of justification protects against two opposing errors: pride or despair. 

You see, the proud think they deserve eternity, that they deserve a personal and right relationship with God.  They are good enough.  They’ve done whatever it takes (in their own personally derived scale of measurement) to deserve heaven and God’s favorable judgment.  The doctrine of justification protects against this prideful attitude, because justification admits of sin that needs pardon, and a righteousness that is not my own that is needed as well.  I can’t be right with God because in and of myself I bring only my damning sin and no righteousness at all.  Pride falls in the face of a proper, healthy doctrine of justification. 

On the other hand, those who despair minimize the free grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Those who despair cannot possibly comprehend that God would have anything to do with one so sinful, ugly and undeserving as themselves.  They are like the monk Martin Luther in his cell, continually trying to whip out their sins.  Or, they simply give up.  God and His rules and standards are so high above anything they could hope to achieve that they simply rule themselves out, by their own judgment, of any relationship with God.  The problem is that these people don’t comprehend that God offers salvation precisely to those that don’t deserve it, in fact to those who have done everything not to deserve it.  Salvation is a gracious and free gift whereby their sins are taken away and paid for, replaced by the perfect righteousness of Christ.  Despair also falls in the face of the gracious work of God for us poor sinners.

In their own ways, both the prideful and the despairing are horribly self-centered, thinking salvation is all about them, when in fact it is all about Christ.  A proper understanding of the doctrine of justification ought to keep our eyes, our attention, our focus on Christ instead of on ourselves, day in and day out.  And if I am focused on Christ and what He has done for me, then I can gratefully live a life of service to Him and to my neighbor, because now I am not absorbed in my own pride or my own despair.

Both the doctrine of justification in all of its profundity, and its practical import for how we live our lives as believers, ought to be taught regularly in our churches.

What do you think?

God at work; Men at work; Church at work – Missional & Reformed V

January 24, 2008

Dr. Joel Kim spoke after Dr. Horton.  I’d never heard him before, so it was a nice treat to finally do so.  His talk on Mission According to Paul drew from Romans 15:7-33 and was very well done.  For some reason I managed not to take many notes (maybe thinking that his well written lecture would eventually be available on the WSCal web site?  Hmm?  Maybe?).  In the passage from Romans 15 Paul shows how God has been at work; Paul has been at work; and the Church also is called to work in the transmission of the Gospel and growth of the Church.

Joel Kim emphasized that Paul, the great theologian and missionary of the Church, was just that, both a theologian and a missionary.  Paul’s example shows us it’s not an either/or proposition.  Paul’s primary concern is the “vertical” growth of the church; he is very concerned to get doctrine right and for believers to grow in their faith.  Nevertheless, Paul is also very concerned of his call to the Gentiles and is very intentional in where he went and how he went.  He had a thought-out strategy and followed it through.

Paul also went out with an expectation that the Church would continue to grow.  The growth is the Lord’s, but the Church will grow.

The last part of Joel Kim’s talk is what I liked best.  It seems as if all too often Reformed people are embarrased to actually have any sort of expectation that God will actually do something through our ministry.  We can too easily fall back into a laissez-faire attitude that since it is God who gives growth (if it happens) then there’s not much for us to do or expect.  This attitude – by some – is all too uncomfortably close to the hyper-Calvinist attitude toward evangelism – that we don’t have to do it because God has His elect and He’ll bring them to faith.

We’re Calvinists.  We know that God is sovereign and that whatever happens, growth or not, is according to His plan and purpose.  We also need to remember that God’s will is for the elect to come to faith, that we are ambassadors sent out by God with the Gospel message of faith in Christ, and that we can pray in confident – no, boldly confident – expectation that God will act according to His will and use us as His grateful and willing ambassadors to bring many to faith in Christ.

Announcement that demands a response – Missional & Reformed IV

January 24, 2008

I’m not a morning person, and with a 90 minute drive from home to Escondido for the start of the Saturday sessions I had to get up early, and arrived groggy.  By the end of Mike Horton’s opening talk I was wide awake.

Dr. Horton spoke on why the marks of the church (right preaching/teaching of the Word; right administration of the sacraments; right exercise of church discipline) need the mission.  Echoing a theme from Friday night: we have to get the Gospel out, and we have to get the Gospel right.  What is the Gospel?  It is an announcement of good news.  It is a report to be believed, not a task to be fulfilled.  We are ambassadors of that report.

Horton also talked about the relationship between the marks of the church as exercised by the leadership of the church and how that relates to the mission of the church; how the marks of the church remind us what God has done for us rather than what we do for God; how a proper use of the marks of the church protect against both zeal without knowledge and knowledge without zeal.  Without the marks of the church the mission is blind; without the mission the marks are dead.

Years ago Josh McDowell wrote Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  The book is meant as an apologetic tool and an evangelistic tool.  Give a person enough evidence and they just have to believe.  A few years ago, after going through Evangelism Explosion training, and later writing a little booklet on witnessing for our congregation, I became convinced that the essential question in witnessing is the one Jesus asks Martha in John 11: Do you believe? 

Once the basic facts of the Gospel have been communicated to a person, the question is simply: do you believe?  Even if the question isn’t explicitly asked (though it should be) the message of the Gospel demands the hearer ultimately to either accept it or reject it.  There is no middle ground.  And this takes the pressure off of us.  We don’t have to sell the gospel; we don’t have to debate people into the faith; or guilt them into the faith.  As Horton reminded us, we’re ambassadors.  Our job is to go out and announce the authorized message from the One who sends us.  We present the facts, we make the announcement, and we ask the question that demands a response.  In all this, we trust that God’s Word does not return to Him empty, and that the Holy Spirit will work to bring to faith all those whom God has called to saving faith in Christ.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day – Missional & Reformed III

January 22, 2008

Dr. Scott Clark was in fine form and capped off Friday night well.  He began by attempting a description of the term “missional” as it is commonly used today.  Not an easy task.  In essence, he showed that the contemporary “missional,” “emerging” movement is a re-visit of the old Pietist movement that emphasized experience in religion.  Sadly for both movements, they divorce experience from biblical truth.  Nothing wrong with experience, but it must be grounded in biblical truth.

Clark then gave a list of things the emerging, missional movement gets right, and a list of things they get wrong.

Note that: R. Scott Clark, castigated throughout cyberspace as the bluest and meanest of the Calvinist Blue Meanies, actually found areas of agreement with the emergent, missional folks!  Surely the Apocalypse is near. 

Well, no, just another example of the fine teaching I remember at Westminster, where the professors – all of them – actually did objectively teach us what people other than Calvinists think. 

Among the areas of agreement there were two that stood out.  The first is the idea that mission is the reason we exist as congregations; we ought to have a care for those outside our congregations.  The second is that since we live in an age of suspicion we need to be who we are and not pretend to be something we are not.

I have been with my local PCA congregation since it began in 1995.  I’ve seen many new people join our church and as an elder had the fun experience of interviewing many of them prior to their becoming members.  It struck me awhile ago that new members join Reformed and Presbyterian churches in one of three ways.  Some come from mainline Reformed and Presbyterian denominations and are just fed up with the way those denominations have abandoned the Bible and our historic confessions.  Others come from broadly evangelical churches; these folks typically through their own study come to a more Reformed understanding of Scripture and go looking for a church where they and their new beliefs fit in better.  The third group are new converts to Christianity.  The last group is by far the smallest.  Dr. Clark related how he came to faith because of the witness of a man whose beliefs and practices wouldn’t fit in with a typical conservative, confessional Presbyterian or Reformed congregation.  But the man cared about whether or not Clark knew Jesus.  Where is that same zeal in Reformed believers?

In our zeal we also need to be ourselves.  For some reason (the kind of “cleverness” that Godfrey mentioned?) there are and have been any number of Reformed and Presbyterian churches who in a (often, I believe, genuine) zeal to reach the lost try to be something they are not.  They adopt practices used by Calvary Chapel, or Willow Creek, or Saddleback, or wherever.  I keep asking myself why we think we can do Calvary Chapel better than Calvary Chapel?  I’ve heard this approach described as being “Reformed under the radar.”  It’s as if we’re ashamed of who we are (the frozen chosen; dull, boring Calvinists; etc.).  Who wants to be part of a group that doesn’t like itself?  As Dr. Clark pointed out, people can smell phony a mile away.

I don’t see any reason why good, solid, conservative, confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches can’t be enthusiastically evangelistic, open and welcoming to new believers, wherever they come from.  Both Godfrey and Clark pointed out that this has been true in our own history.  Why don’t we try it again?  May God grant that we will have tremendous zeal to see the lost converted; may He equip us by His Spirit to be friendly, open, welcoming people who deeply love His Word, cherish it, study it, and embrace its truths as summarized in our confessional documents.  This is what I’m hoping and praying for us at Mission Presbyterian in north Orange County.

It’s better to be conscientious than clever – Missional & Reformed II

January 22, 2008

Back when I was an MBA student I had the privilege of taking classes from Peter Drucker, the well-known “father of modern management.”  Drucker is much maligned in many Reformed circles for his support of the church growth, megachurch movement.  Drucker was wrong about that (though his basic theories are still right – just applied the wrong way; maybe a future post…).  But he was right about many things, and he summarized them in pithy sayings we students called Druckerisms.  One that stuck in my brain is in the title of this post, and I remembered it while listening to Dr. Robert Godfrey’s opening address at the Missional and Reformed conference at WSCal.

Dr. Godfrey used Isaiah 55 as the basis of his address, calling it a very evangelistic and missional chapter (after first clarifying how much he disliked the term “missional” and that in reality, to be Reformed is to be missional, and vice versa).  God’s Word is characterized in Isaiah 55 four ways: as the power of the church, the promise of God, the pattern for our living, and the plea to come, seek and turn.  Godfrey stressed the Word of God as the foundation of the life and work of the Church. 

But, have churches fallen out of love with the Word of God?  Is it really studied and treasured?  There seems to be an attitude that while God’s Word is true, God has left it to our cleverness to accomplish the mission of the church.  This despite the promise of Isaiah 55:11, that God’s Word does not return to Him void, but accomplishes what He purposes for it, succeeds in what He sends it to do.

I like Godfrey’s emphasis and loved the way he showed how evangelistic a chapter Isaiah 55 truly is.  Isaiah 55:11 has been a favorite verse for a long time.  If we would simply be faithful in proclaiming the truths of God’s Word then we can have confidence that He will accomplish His purposes as we do that.  This is being conscientious rather than clever.  It is a conscientiousness that does not rely on its own strength for success, but rests in faith on what God has promised to do.  It is a conscientiousness that proclaims both the propositional truths of Scripture and the inherent plea that goes with them: “Hear these truths.  Having heard them, you have a choice.   Accept them or reject them.”  Those who accept them no longer thirst, and buy wine and milk without money.  Those who reject them remain dry barren bones in a dry barren valley.

Missional and Reformed

January 22, 2008

I attended the Missional and Reformed conference down at Westminster Seminary over the weekend.  The conference was very well done and I’m very glad I went.  In future posts I’ll summarize what the speakers said and try to interact with them.

For now, two overall impressions.  On the one hand I was very much energized, invigorated, refreshed and renewed by what the faculty members had to say.  One of the things that I miss about seminary is the many “wow!” moments of realization caused by the professors’ profound insights into God’s Word.  And you can’t help but be energized, invigorated, refreshed and renewed by that.  If you’re alive.  There were a number of “wow!” moments at the conference.

On the other hand I was saddened by the lack of attendance by men in my own presbytery.  Now I know that they are all very busy with various things, and I know some had important business elsewhere.  Maybe the conference wasn’t as aggressively promoted to them as it could have been (though I’m not sure how).  Still, other than the faculty, there was only one other teaching elder that I saw and no ruling elders that I recognized.  I did see a few interns, which was nice.  I’m not sure what can be done about the lack of attendance and/or interest, but I do know that they missed out on a very worthwhile weekend.