Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Neither"

Sometimes reading Scripture can catch you off guard. You can be reading along, thinking you have a solid handle on the text when – BOOM – a single word will send you spinning. I was once sent spinning thusly.

I was reading Joshua chapter five. It seemed pretty straight forward, when a single word blew apart my erroneous understanding and set me to thinking. Perhaps you remember the story. Moses has died and Joshua is now the leader of the Israelites. God has promised them the land in Canaan and has led them to the city of Jericho. Let’s pick up the text here (verses 13 through 15)…

“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’

‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’

The commander of the Lord's army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

Did you see the word over which I once tumbled?

I’ll give you a hint: It’s “neither.”

Neither.

When Joshua asks the commander of the Lord’s army “are you for us or for our enemies?” the commander replies “neither.”

Based on the rest of this story – you know, how the commander gives Joshua instructions on how to capture Jericho and how those instructions work in miraculous fashion – I had always felt safe in assuming this commander was from God.

In fact, if you examine this commander closely you find some very striking characteristics:

First, earthly armies have chains of command – from the commander-in-chief to the generals, senior officers, junior officers, non-commissioned officers all the way down to the privates. This is necessary because the commanders can’t be everywhere at once. Aha, but God can. God needs no such chain of command. He alone commands his army.

Second: Joshua falls down and worships this commander – and the commander accepts the worship. Angels don’t do that because there is only One worthy of worship and that is God, Himself.

Third: This commander tells Joshua to take off his sandals because the ground on which he is standing is holy. Now, what makes a patch of ground holy? Geography? No. It is the presence of God. Remember this happened before when Moses was addressed by God in the burning bush. God’s presence makes a place holy.

This commander is a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.

Okay. So, the messenger is beyond reproach. What He says can be safely taken as authoritative. But, what of the message? He said “neither.” This indicates that he is not for the Israelites. God is not for the Israelites? How can this be?

Aren’t these the very people with whom God established His covenants? Didn’t He dwell in their midst in the tabernacle? He delivered them from slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea. He fed them in the wilderness. He piled up the waters of the Jordan River so they could cross into the Promised Land. And, because we have the benefit of Scripture, we know He leads them to victory in Canaan, and ultimately blesses all nations through them by sending the Messiah as the perfect sacrifice for sin.

And yet Christ tells Joshua that He is not for the Israelites. I thought perhaps there was some textual anomaly, some matter of semantics that would clear this up. I found none.

The answer is found in adopting a foundational principle for studying Scripture and it is this…

It ain’t about us.

None of it. God’s Word, His divine plan – none of it is about us. Oh, His Word is for us and His plan certainly benefits us, but it is not about us. It’s about Him. All of it.

All of God’s creation exists to bring Him glory. This is a foundational principle of Christianity. We are created for His glory. We are saved for His glory. We preach and teach and live for His glory.

This is the lesson Joshua needed to learn. While the Israelites had benefited from God’s plan they were not the focus of it. God was the focus of it.

This is a lesson we sorely need to relearn in the 21st century church. So many of our beliefs are rooted in the notion that God’s plan is somehow about us. This is a horrible mistake. It takes the focus off of God and puts it on us. It makes us think there is something about us worthy of being saved. And nothing could be further from the truth.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Emergent's Incomplete Gospel

My first comments regarding the Emergent Church began with this series of articles. In them I pointed out some things I considered both dangerous and beneficial about this movement. And, while I’ve continued to read about and study the Emergent Church movement and its leaders, I’ve commented little. But, as Scripture commands us to contend earnestly for the faith and to speak out against false teaching, I find myself compelled to offer the following…

My original assessment of the Emergent Church was that it is, at best, liberalism repackaged and, at worst, a cult. The more I learn the more I am inclined to believe the latter. Consider Rob Bell.

Rob Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the author of the book “Velvet Elvis,” and the featured speaker in the Nooma DVD series, is a leading figure of the Emergent Church culture. His popularity and influence is growing and should be held up to scrutiny. After all, 1 John 4:1 says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

We try the spirits by holding them up against the inerrant Word of God. If the teachings therein are contrary to Scripture then what are we to conclude? They are false.

Let’s hold a portion of Bell’s message up against Scripture and see what happens.

In the Nooma DVD “Bullhorn” Bell speaks about a man with a bullhorn preaching on a street corner. Says Bell, “As I get closer, I hear the words ‘sin’ and ‘burn’ and ‘hell’ and repent.’ And then I hear the word ‘Jesus.’ And he’s got these pamphlets, and he’s quoting these Bible verses about the anger and wrath of God, and how if I don’t repent, I’m going to pay for it for eternity, and how I might die, I might die tonight! This might be my only chance!”

Bell continues…

“Bullhorn guy, I don’t think it’s working. All the yelling and the judgment and the condemnation, I don’t think it’s working. I actually think it’s making things worse. I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind.”

Now, if Bell were talking only about Bullhorn guy’s method he might have a point. Ranting on a street corner may not be the best way to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But viewed in context it becomes clear that Bell is not talking only about methodology. He’s talking about the message. Bell makes it plain that he thinks preaching or teaching about sin, judgment, wrath, and repentance is a bad thing.

But what does Scripture have to say about such things?

Sin:

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” – Romans 3:23

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 6:23

Judgment and Wrath:

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” – Matthew 10:28

“For we know him that hath said, Vengeance [belongeth] unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. [It is] a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:30, 31

Repentance:

“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;” – Acts 3:19

These are not isolated verses. The Bible is filled with references to sin, the penalty for sin, God’s wrath to be poured out on sinners, and the necessity of repentance. Bell seems ashamed of these words, these concepts. According to Bell this is not what Jesus had in mind.

Says Bell, “I mean, that’s why so many of us are so fascinated with Jesus, because he never stops insisting that God really, really loves us exactly as we are.”

I will agree that God loves us. The Bible teaches this.

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

God’s love is evident. But Bell completely misses a very, very important part. In what way, in both of the previously quoted verses, is God’s love is evident? It is evident because of the price He paid on our behalf. He gave His Son for us.

God’s love compelled Him to sacrifice His son, but our sinfulness before His holiness is what made the sacrifice necessary. God does not love us “exactly as we are.” Reconciliation is necessary. Justification must be made. He loves us enough to change us, not leave us in our wretched condition. All of these concepts together constitute the Gospel – sin, judgment, wrath, repentance, Christ, sacrifice, grace. This is the Gospel.

Bell wants to focus on God’s love apart from His righteous judgment of sin. He wants to just ignore all those unpleasant words Bullhorn guy was using.

“I mean, isn’t that what draws you to [Jesus],” says Bell.

No, Mr. Bell it’s not. In fact, the thing that draws anyone to Christ is not a matter of speculation. Christ Himself told us what it is that draws us to Him.

“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him:” – John 6:44

God draws us to Christ, period. And it is when we hear the Gospel that God chooses to do this.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth;” – Romans 1:16

The gospel of Christ is the power of salvation and we should not be ashamed of it. The Apostle Paul wasn’t.

It may be more popular to just skip those unpleasant aspects of God’s Word – that nasty sin and wrath portion – but a gospel that overlooks man’s sin, his need for repentance, and the just wages of his sinfulness is no Gospel at all – and it has no power unto salvation.

Once was the day when pastor’s did not shy away from the hard truth of Scripture, just take a look at this sermon by Jonathan Edwards. May God grant us pastors and teachers unashamed of the gospel of Christ. Unafraid to preach Christ and Him crucified.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Economics of Christianity

In economics things are viewed as having either intrinsic value or extrinsic value. In the simplest terms this refers to whether or not something has value in and of itself. If it does it is said to have intrinsic value. The value of water is intrinsic. We need water to sustain life. We drink it, wash with it, cook with it, and water crops with it. Its value is contained within itself.

Extrinsic value means an item has no real value on it’s own but draws it’s value from somewhere else. A check for 100 dollars, for example, has no value on it’s own. The small rectangle of paper is virtually worthless. Its value is drawn from another source – in this case from the 100 dollars in the bank represented by the check. The check’s value is extrinsic, outside of itself.

Why in the world is this concept important to the study of Christianity?

I’m glad you asked. It is important because confusing intrinsic and extrinsic value is corrupting the Gospel in many of our churches.

Okay, let me explain.

The world is divided between people who view mankind as the basis for measuring ethics and morality and people who view God as the basis for measuring ethics and morality. Humanism views man as the measure of all things while the Bible teaches that God is that measure. Both of these worldviews, however, share a common belief – man has value.

Aha, but they are vastly different in what kind of value man contains. Humanists teach that mankind has intrinsic value – that we, in and of ourselves, are valuable. And, in our relationships with one another this is true to some extent. The members of my family are valuable to me and that value is contained in them.

But what about our relationship with God?

You may have heard it said that man is extremely valuable to God, just look at the incredible price He paid for us. Now, it is true that God paid a very high price to redeem the elect. But too often we begin to think that this is the case because God saw some value in us that made us worthy of redemption. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The idea that we have some intrinsic value that made God want to save us is nothing more than the corrupting influence of humanism, which has been infiltrating our churches since the 17th century. This unbiblical worldview has penetrated so deeply into the teachings of Christianity that once uncompromising preachers are now leaning toward Universalist views as a result. What we need to remember is that the authority for Christian faith and practice does not reside in the popular philosophies of the past few hundred years but in the very Word of God revealed to us by our Creator.

How does God characterize us? Look at Isaiah’s response in Isaiah chapter 6 when he saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lifted up. “Then said I, Woe [is] me! for I am undone; because I [am] a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

Isaiah was made aware of his standing before a Holy God. There was no inkling of worth in him. He was utterly and completely undone. Worthless.

“Okay, okay,” the humanist philosophy tells us, “But God still needs us. That’s why He called upon us to fulfill His will.”

As believers we certainly have the distinct privilege of serving God. But we should never make the mistake of thinking God needs us. Look at Isaiah again, this time in chapter 64 …

“But we are all as an unclean [thing], and all our righteousnesses [are] as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And [there is] none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.”

What we do for God is as “filthy rags.”

We need to reject humanism outright and understand the biblical teaching that before God we have no intrinsic value at all. We are undone.

However, we are remarkably fortunate, indeed, because in his letter to the Romans Paul points out that, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

It pleased God to exhibit His grace in this manner so that He may be glorified. And now, we have value in His sight but it is extrinsic. Our value before God is drawn from Christ and Christ alone, it is not our own. On this point we need to be perfectly clear.