Comments on An Introduction to Christian Theology, chapter 7

For my HT502 class, Fuller Theological Seminary. Click below for the document.

Comments on ICT Chapter 7

This textbook has a very nice cover, which just proves the old adage: Don’t judge a book by its cover. This tome is seriously flawed and outdated. It evidences a lack of understanding of, and sympathy with, the premodern Christian intellectual tradition. It perpetuates a number of myths, including the Hellenization thesis, and the myth that biblical anthropology is monistic. And it is plagued by dubious doctrinal choices. The central problem is that the book is primarily an apologia for Moltmannian theology, including a social trinitarianism (and a subtle undercurrent of panentheism) that functions as  controlling theme throughout the text. A pretty book, but not a good one, in my judgment, particularly when it comes to historical theology. And modern theology. And it certainly is not confessionally Reformed, despite the fact that the authors are all professors at Calvin College, and have signed the Covenant for Officebearers. Did I mention that it has a nice cover?

ict-cover

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A Sermon on Church Health

This sermon was prepared as the fourth in a series about the process of the Church Renewal Lab.

Introduction: Learning to Ride a Backwards Bicycle

 Destin Sandlin is an engineer who created an educational science website called “Smarter Every Day.” His buddy is a welder in a shop where they like to pull pranks on people, and he made a bike that he bet Destin couldn’t ride. The bike was modified so that when you turn the handlebars left, the wheel goes right, and vice-versa. Destin thought he could ride it. He was wrong. He tried riding it the next day, and every day, for eight months. He still couldn’t ride it. Then one day, something in his brain clicked, and suddenly he could ride the backwards bike. But his mind had 30 years of normal bike-riding pattern burned into it. It took eight months for him to learn a new way. Then he tried it with his six year old son, on a similarly altered little boy’s bike. It took his son two weeks. Why? Because the brain of a child is much more elastic, and can learn motor skills and language much more quickly than an adult brain. (I can’t help but think that there is a spiritual parallel to this: Jesus says you have to become like a little child to learn the ways of the kingdom).

And by the way, when Destin had mastered riding that backwards bike, he found he couldn’t ride a regular bike anymore—not at first. He crashed and crashed for 20 minutes, then the old pathway in the brain kicked in again, and he was rolling again. But the point is this: when you’ve been doing things one way for many years, it takes a lot of intentional effort, and time, to unlearn those habits, and replace them with new ones.

This morning we’re looking at the fourth essential for renewal: and that’s health.

I. The Pharisee Christians

 This was a real crisis that faced the young church. There were certain Pharisee Christians, v. 5, who said that to be a follower of Jesus, you first had to become a Jew. You had to keep the Jewish ceremonies and take on the outward signs of being a Jew. The Pharisee Christians complained when people from the outside end up changing the church. Pharisee Christians looked back fondly to when the church was totally Dutch…I mean, Jewish. Did I say Dutch?

Well, Pharisee Christians can still be found today. They’re the ones who demand that the church stick to the old ways, even if those old ways never worked well in the first place. (I find it fascinating when Peter says: why should we put a burden on the Gentiles that we couldn’t even live up to? v. 10). Pharisee Christians complain when someone tries something new, rather than either just letting it go, or contributing something positive to improve the experiment. A church cannot thrive, cannot be vital, and cannot grow if it is controlled by this mentality. A healthy church is missional; that is, it exists to bring the good news to non-church people. It does not exist to try to please every demographic of the already-churched.

Health, when it comes to churches, means that a congregation is a place of grace and permission. Grace means: treating people with the same grace and forgiveness as we have received from others. And permission, particularly in the context of renewal and revitalizing our congregation, means: “Creating an environment where risk taking and change are embraced with joy and enthusiasm.” Does that mean you will like every change? No. But it does mean you get behind the goal of change, which is to make us more effective in our mission to reach the lost. It means tolerating things you don’t prefer. And this is what happened in the early church.

In the Renewal Lab, we will be learning about the habits that make a church healthy. One of the tools for fostering church health lists habits that are un-healthy. Here are two examples: unhealthy ways to deal with complaints:

  • When someone complains, we stop everything to try to figure out a way to make that person happy; therefore, anybody in the congregation has the power to stop us with a complaint.
  • People are allowed to complain anonymously in our congregation so that we often know that people are upset, but we don’t know who they are.

 These are unhealthy norms. If we don’t consciously work to change these habits, they can lead to toxic results: like burnout, and division. But sometimes these habits are as ingrained in us as riding a bike. So when we try to learn them, and practice them, we will fall down a lot, and crash occasionally. And that’s where the grace comes in.

II. No Compromise

 So how did the Apostles deal with this crisis? Well, first of all they refused to compromise, and second, they made a lot of compromises. Paul and Barnabus refused to give one inch on the gospel, what the good news about Jesus really means. The Pharisee Christians wanted “Jesus And…” Jesus Plus. But for Paul this was a deal breaker.

The leaders of the church got together to solve this problem. This meeting is considered to be the first universal church council, by the way. And I find it fascinating that Luke (author of Acts) records the opinions of two people who had a different emphasis than the apostle Paul. If you remember, Peter had assumed that you had to be a Jew, and eat kosher food, in order to be a Christian. And James, I imagine, probably had a real problem at first with Paul’s emphasis on faith, because James puts the emphasis on the good works that faith produces. So it’s no accident Peter and James speak up in defense of Paul’s teaching.

You don’t have to become a Jew to follow Jesus! What purpose does it serve to make the gentiles avoid pork? We’ve been avoiding pork for thousands of years—how well has that worked out for us? Those external things—things that God intended for our good—they now get in the way. It hasn’t made us stand out from the crowd in the way God wants, because we also didn’t stand out in terms of loving the stranger, and having compassion on the broken. So why force this “yoke”—this burden, on these new believers in Jesus? Verse 11: No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as [the gentiles] are.

Just as the apostles refused to compromise on the gospel, so there are a few things that a healthy church should never compromise. The first is: We cannot compromise on seeking to be a missional church. Worship, for example, can never be just about making me feel good. It cannot be an activity that is meant to please one group or another. True worship seeks to please one person, and that is the Lord God.

Another area where a congregation has to draw the line is to say no to unhealthy behavior. Now, every one of us deals with brokenness, of course. There will be times when we will say the wrong thing, or say the right thing, wrongly. Where we cannot compromise, though, is on this: We can’t let bad behavior be the norm. So if I have an issue with you, but I don’t tell you, because I hate conflict, and instead I gossip about how wrong you are to some third party, that’s unhealthy. Or someone says: I want to complain about this thing in church, but I don’t want you to say my name, that’s out of bounds. We can’t allow that.

Again, that’s hard to learn, to create a culture where we instinctively know that a certain kind of communication or criticism is unhealthy. And to practice the healthy way, until we no longer automatically react in the unhealthy way. (I’ll tell you when I get it down perfectly myself. Don’t hold your breath.) Those bad habits reach deep down into our history, our souls, maybe even our DNA. We will fall off the bike a lot as we try to learn new habits. It will take time. But it won’t happen at all unless we make a consistent and intentional effort.

III. Several Compromises

 Finally, the apostles said: No compromise!… followed by several compromises. No compromise on the essentials; compromise like crazy on the rest. They made gracious concessions. James, the brother of Jesus, and (as I said) someone who probably thought Paul didn’t mention holy living as often as he would like, stood up and said:  “… we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols…” etc.

Now, Paul could have stood up and said: We need to get rid of every Jewish ritual! But he didn’t. Notice the things listed: avoiding meat sacrificed to idols—Paul in the letter to the Romans says this meat is not really polluted, but weak Christians think so. Avoiding sexual immorality—here, specifically, James probably has in mind things like ritual prostitution—things that the Jews particularly disliked about the gentiles. And avoiding meat that was strangled or had blood in it. This was particularly difficult for Jews to swallow…so to speak. It didn’t harm the non-Jews to avoid these things, so it was a good compromise, and it held the church together, and allowed them to continue pursuing the mission Christ gave them.

A healthy compromise. A healthy church can make compromises that don’t compromise the mission. The Jerusalem Council came about because of a conflict—but the apostles led the people through this conflict, with a good result. So not all conflict is unhealthy—not even in the church. Conflict is inevitable. There’s going to be conflict, different opinions, clashing personalities. But it’s easier to learn how to ride a backwards bicycle than to learn that conflict is not always bad and doesn’t always have to end in a meltdown. It’s especially hard to learn if you grew up seeing mostly unhealthy conflict. Many of us carry those wounds—and that colors how we deal with conflict (or don’t deal with it). So if you avoid conflict, and don’t always handle it well, join the club. I’ll show you my membership card after church. Personally, I think it’s one of the hardest things to practice, and it’s one of the areas where I fail the most.

But the first apostles learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, as the old cliché goes. And there are resources available. The Mennonites have a tool they call Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love, and it’s very good and helping individuals and churches work through conflict. The first principle is to “Acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church.” Another is to talk to people directly about issues, rather than going behind their back. If you’re like me, you tend to take criticism personally, and if you’re like me, you might have a strong urge to counterattack. It’s hard, very hard, to find a different way. And we don’t always find that way, and sometimes we have to seek forgiveness.

Conclusion: A Healthy, Healing Meal

 When I fail big time at this, my reaction is first to be defensive, and then to feel shame. To beat myself up. Many of you know that feeling. You’ve been there. The only thing worse at that point is to be alone with your thoughts—telling yourself you’re a failure, you’re unlovable, you’re worthless. But that’s not what Jesus wants from you, or from me. Jesus wants to lift us up out of the dirt, and say: Go, and sin no more.

But Jesus, you said that last time!

And Jesus will say: Yes I did. And the time before that. And I will say it again next time when you mess up.

Until then, Jesus says, eat this bread, and drink this cup. They’re for your healing. Eating and drinking with those people who are wounded, and forgiven, just like you—that’s healing. It makes you healthy. Because when you do, I am there with you. Don’t sit alone with your thoughts about being unworthy. Sit with other unworthy people, whom I love. Whom I forgive. Whom I restore. Whom I feed with my very flesh and blood.

Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, feed us now, and make us whole, and holy again. Heal our divisions and grievances. Make us healthy, so that you can fulfill in us that Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Amen.

From Embers to a Flame 5

Chapter 9: Revitalization Strategy 7: Staying on Mission with a Vision

mission-visionA church that needs revitalization needs a clearly defined mission and vision, argues Harry Reeder in this chapter. He makes a distinction between those two terms: “Your mission is what God has called your church to do for God’s glory, whereas vision is what he wants your church to be as the mission is fulfilled. To put it another way, mission is our purpose, and vision is our passion” (128). He illustrates with the words of Jesus in the Great Commission, which tell the disciples what to do (make disciples), and then before the ascension, he says what they will be (his witnesses).

This is a curious description of vision. And I’m not sure it’s adequate or accurate. Vision usually refers to the future; it’s an envisioning of where you want to go, who you want to be, and from there you figure out you want to get there, what strategies you will use. Fortunately, this is how Reeder actually uses the term, later.

A Mission from God

Reeder begins with Acts 13:36, where David’s mission is described. David “served God’s purpose in his own generation” before he rested with his fathers. Each church also has a purpose that is unique to their own situation, Reeder says. (This is true, but it is also true that all churches share the same basic purpose, which is to make disciples; I’m sure Reeder would agree). So, for First Cutlerville, the question is: what is our purpose here in this area, in Gaines and Byron Townships, in the neighborhoods near 68th Street between Byron Center Avenue and however far east one wants to go. What does it mean to be a church in this area?

Reeder reminds us that the questions that people ask change from generation to generation and from culture to culture. So we not only have to tell people the gospel, we also have to listen to them carefully, to get to know them, so that we can understand where they are coming from. When Reeder was in college in the 1970s, the debate was: Is Christianity true or not? Today the debate is: Is there any truth at all? And is your truth the same as my truth? Today we deal with radical subjectivism (I determine my own truth), relativism (your truth and my truth can be totally different) and skepticism (there may be no truth or no way of being sure about the truth).

State Your Mission

Here Reeder talks about creating and refining a mission statement. (This practice comes from the business world, and I wish Reeder would provide some biblical-theological justification for why we borrow this practice. He simply assumes that we should do so). In any case, Reeder says a mission statement should answer five questions:

  1. Who are we? Mission requires a clear sense of identity.
  2. What do we do? The mission statement makes your priorities clear, and helps you to evaluate new ministries that are proposed: Will this new ministry help us to fulfill these priorities? Reeder’s church prioritizes worshipping God and reaching people for Christ; any new ministry must help them accomplish those goals.
  3. Where do we do this? Our ministry starts locally, and extends globally.
  4. How do we do this? Reeder’s church specifies that they do this by equipping Christians.
  5. Why do we do this? In good Presbyterian and Reformed fashion, Reeder’s church says that their “why” is God’s glory. Or in other words, to please God.

Developing a Vision

“If mission is God’s purpose for your church in your own generation, then vision is the ability to picture that purpose implemented in your world” (134). Here Reeder offers a more conventional and, I think, more accurate understanding of what vision means. What will our church look like in the future if we fulfill our mission?

Reeder suggests the following issues to consider when developing a vision:

  1. The pastor’s strengths, weaknesses, and calling. Reeder does not think that a church’s vision is all about one person, of course, but because of the pastor’s office and training, the pastor “takes a primary role in setting the vision for the church.” Nevertheless, that vision must be shared, “given away, embraced, enhanced, and enlarged by the other leaders” in the church–here we think of our ministry staff, our office-bearers, other respected members, and our Church Renewal Lab Team. The vision has to be owned by the congregation if it is to become theirs, and if they are to invest in it. But because vision usually starts with the pastor, Reeder says (and I’m not sure if this is always true, largely because I want to be collaborative in my leadership), and because the pastor will be a key person in implementing the vision, the pastor’s passions and giftedness have to be carefully considered. The pastor should ask: Why has God called me to this congregation? What is my purpose here? In addition, the elders should play to the pastor’s strengths. Make the most of those strengths. Take the time to get to know the pastor and talk about what those strengths are.
  2. The ministries of other local churches. What are other churches doing, and how can our ministry be unique among them? Don’t duplicate what the church down the road does.
  3. The needs of the community. We have to be students of the culture around us, Reeder says (and Tim Keller often makes this same point). What are the problems and the blessings in your neighborhood? What is the ethnic mix? The difference between a “receptor church” and a “mission church” is one we can understand. In the old days, CRC churches grew when Dutch people moved into an area; that’s a receptor church. A mission church finds ways to connect with people from a different culture. Reeder does not, however, talk about how one does this.

Vision at Work

Reeder describes the desire to be an “epicenter church,” just an earthquake has a starting point and radiate waves from that center. “The kinds of tremors that we want to see are evangelism, discipleship, church-planting, church revitalization, and deeds of love, mercy, and justice” (140). Reeder emphasizes the importance of communicating that vision to the congregation, because “nothing motivates people for creative, sacrificial, joyful, and continual support of a ministry more than vision” (141). Vision is even better than guilt, which is what we often use as a motivator!

Churches in need of revitalization often believe that their vision must be small, because they don’t have enough resources to go big. But Reeder argues that “resources seldom precede vision and ministry.” Don’t wait for the resources to come in before you develop goals. Instead, develop your mission and vision, and then begin to implement it; then your people will start supplying the resources you need (143).

Farsighted Vision

Vision should extend beyond the near future, beyond short-term goals. We should be thinking about the next generation, and generations to follow. In Reeder’s church, they set ten year goals, which, for example, included averaging a hundred professions of faith every quarter of every year and graduating a hundred members a year in Evangelism Explosion. Another goal was to plant a strategic network of a hundred epicenter churches. (All ten goals can be found on pp. 145-146). These goals are lofty, even for a large church. But Reeder quotes a fellow pastor, Randy Pope, who says, “We want to attempt something so great for God that it is doomed to failure if God is not in it.” A revitalized church will have a God-sized vision, not a human-sized vision.

Chapter 10: Revitalization Strategy 8: Servant Leadership Multiplication

Where are the Good Leaders?

Reeder argues that in the past, “the church defined leadership for the rest of the country and produced many of the country’s leaders,” but this is no longer the case.

What is Good Leadership?

Good leadership can be defined by three maxims:

Good leaders learn from the past, but they don’t live in it. (See chapter 3)

Good leaders live in the present, but they don’t accommodate to it. They are thermostats rather than thermometers; that is, they don’t just reflect their environment, they seek to change it.

Good leaders look to the future, but they don’t wait for it.

One can also define a leader by what a leader does: A good leader influences others to effectively achieve a defined mission together.

The Influence of Godly Leaders

This is how an effective leader in the church influences others:

  1. Education. Paul taught Timothy so that he could in turn train others to be leaders (2 Tim. 2:2). Reeder emphasizes that “good leaders in the church will always be teaching others about the ways of God” (152).
  2. Embodiment. Good leaders also embody the truths they teach, and serve as models for others.
  3. Empowerment. Good leaders, through inspiration and motivation, empower others to lead and serve. Having confidence in them is one way of doing so. (I would add that micromanaging and controlling them would do the opposite).
  4. Evaluation. Good leaders stay connected to those whom they lead, so they can affirm what has been done well and identify areas where improvement is needed.

The Effectiveness of Godly Leaders

An effective leader is one who “learns to do the right things in the right way at the right time for the right reasons” (155). First, one has to do the right things. Busyness is not an indicator of effectiveness. A good leader needs to distinguish between the apparently urgent and the genuinely important, and prioritize accordingly. Doing things in the right way doesn’t mean comparing yourself to others, but doing the best that you can do with the gifts God has given you. Doing things at the right time (and for the right reasons). Reeder actually does not discuss the “at the right time” part, which is unfortunate. But I would say that one learns, over time, that there are appropriate times in which to mention things to someone.

The Legacy of Godly Leaders

Here Reeder emphasizes the importance of working together in ministry. An effective leader is not one who does all the ministry alone, but who “attracts, develops, and deploys others” to carry out ministry with the leader. The goal is to equip the saints for works of ministry, Eph. 4:11-12. In this way, effective leaders “must be reproducing themselves in the body if the body is to remain healthy.” A good leader delegates, but a good leader can also take charge and be decisive in an emergency. Delegation, however, is the more necessary skill.

Profile of a Multiplication Leader

A multiplication leader has the following qualities:

  1. A multiplication leader is a learner.  If you quit learning, you no longer have the credibility to teach, lead, or coach others.
  2. A multiplication leader seizes on learning moments. These come more often in difficult times than when things are going smoothly.
  3. A multiplication leader is always teaching and coaching others.
  4. A multiplication leader always helps others seize their personal learning moments.
  5. A multiplication leader uses teaching maxims. That is, a leader “learns to put ideas in clear, memorable terms that people can hold on to and practice.”

A Curriculum for Leadership Development

Reeder suggests a basic outline for planning leadership training in one’s church, one that corresponds to the three parts of Hebrews 13:7 (but in reverse order): Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Reeder suggests that leaders be trained in character, content, and competency.

  1. Character. A person can have good biblical and theological knowledge, but lack character. A leader of character does not care about being upstaged by others who perform well, and is not threatened by the excellence of others. Reeder observes: “circumstances do not dictate your character, they reveal it, and they become an opportunity to refine it”(167).
  2. Content. In addition to the scriptures and the important confessions of the church, Reeder points out other things that might be neglected. First, they should have a good understanding of history (see chapter 3). Second, they need to know the Bible well and be able to find their way around the Bible. Finally, Reeder says leadership trainees should know the doctrine of providence, the teaching that God is ultimately in control. This will help them to avoid despair when things are going well. (Here Reeder, by the way, gives numerous examples of virtuous civil war generals, all but one from the Confederacy. He does this throughout the book, apparently unaware that continually finding examples of integrity and character among leaders who treated African-Americans as subhuman property, and who fought and died to maintain the inhuman practice of slavery, might be considered not so convincing to anyone who is not white, or Southern. I found this a very poor choice).
  3. Competency. Here Reeder identifies three competencies that leaders must develop in others: a) Ministry skills; b) Mentoring skills; and c) Management skills.

Reeder then compiles a list of leadership principles and practices:

  • Effective leaders take risks, but they don’t deny reality.
  • Effective leaders are innovative, but not ridiculous or novel just to get attention.
  • Effective leaders take charge, but do not oppress people.
  • Effective leaders have high expectations that stretch others and raise the bar for all, but don’t set people up for failure by demanding the impossible.
  • Effective leaders maintain a positive attitude, but stay in touch with reality.
  • Effective leaders create opportunities for success in small things that encourage others to tackle the greater challenges.
  • Effective leaders lead from the front, but stay in touch with those who are following and supporting.
  • Effective leaders give their people public credit for success, but take responsibility themselves for any failure or setback.
  • Effective leaders plan their work and work their plan, and always remember that their plan and their work are people.
  • Effective leaders establish priorities in their leadership plans, and stick with them.
  • Effective leaders establish accountability for themselves and for those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders raise the bar of performance for themselves.
  • Effective leaders avoid bitterness and animosity toward those who are in opposition.
  • Effective leaders avoid rationalizations and the public blaming of those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders clearly communicate their objectives and methods, as well as their expectations of others.
  • Effective leaders ensure agreement and support by those who work with them on matters of vision, goals, philosophy, and tactics.
  • Effective leaders are aware of the preferences, strengths, and weaknesses of those who work under them.
  • Effective leaders develop thoughtful loyalty from leader to follower, as well as from follower to leader.
  • Effective leaders are courageous, yet avoid being foolhardy in the name of bravery.
  • Effective leaders develop clear objectives and overall strategy, but maintain the ability to be flexible.

From Embers to a Flame 2

Remember and Repent

The first two revitalization strategies are remember and repent.

Chapter 3: Revitalization Strategy 1: Connect to the Past

Harry Reeder encourages churches to learn from the past without living in the past. Congregations benefit from being connected to their local church’s history, as from an awareness of the great tradition of the Christian faith. Reeder writes: “A revitalization pastor will learn from the past in order to live in the present so that the church can change the future” (38).

Original fcv church
Original building of the Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church

The History of the Local Church. Reeder emphasizes the importance of working to understand a congregation’s history. He tells the story of a pastor who followed two very successful predecessors. Someone said to the new pastor: “You sure have some big shoes to fill.” And the new pastor replied: “I brought my own shoes, thank you.” Reeder emphasizes that we must avoid being trapped or dominated by the past. New pastors, he says, should neither demean the former ministry nor try to duplicate it.

 

The History of the Universal Church. Reeder laments that American Christians often know little about international Christianity and the history of Christianity. Our creeds and confessions, when used in worship, connect us with the great tradition of our faith, as do classic hymns. Reeder argues for beginning with “the great classical worship that at one time was contemporary and has now become tried and true, and then build on it, being ready to absorb that which is excellent in the present” (42). Good worship, he contends, avoids both “the arrogance of modernity, which disconnects from the past” and “the idolatry of traditionalism, which lives in the past.” Instead, it “is connected to the past without living in the past, contextualized in the present without accommodating the present, and setting a pattern to shape the future instead of becoming dated in the future” (42). Reeder also recommends incorporating illustrations from church history into sermons. –Who am I to argue with that?! Another suggestion is to teach people about the Old Testament.

In order not to be a maintenance ministry, but rather, a movement ministry, Reeder suggests three courses of action: Investigate, Contemplate, Celebrate.

  1. Investigate past blessings.
  2. Contemplate the lessons and principles that the Lord blessed in the past.
  3. Celebrate them and continue to implement them in ways that fit the gifts and resources that you currently have in your church and use the celebrations to set up new initiatives in the ministry vision that the Lord is laying out to take the church to the next level in serving Christ and expanding the kingdom.

Here at First Cutlerville, we just celebrated 20 years in our current building, on June 12, 2016. As I was preparing my sermon, I read the commemorative booklets from the 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries of the congregation. I learned much about our history, but perhaps also about our present character. I think it could be valuable to scan these documents and make them available online for our leaders and members. In the Church Renewal Lab, we heard that most churches work forward from their past, but we should really work backward from our future. That is: envision where God wants to lead us tomorrow, and then discern what that means for what we do today in order to get to that place.

Chapter 4: Revitalization Strategy 2: A Call to Repentance

Reeder’s second strategy, a communal, corporate repenting from past wrongs, is not a downer, he argues, but an opportunity for God to do a new thing.2 Chronicles 714 [mobile-1262x1262].png But before you can encourage a community of people to truly repent and confess sin, one must first cultivate an atmosphere of grace. We don’t repent to feel bad about ourselves; we repent joyfully because we are sure of God’s loving forgiveness earned at the high cost of Christ’s blood. Secondly, Reeder says we must also emphasize personal responsibility. We should not be making excuses for ourselves or for others. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the Serpent. Third, we then have to expect the fruits of repentance. Reeder summarizes these fruits in three words: restitution, restoration, and reconciliation. His summary is helpful: “Restitution is paying back what is owed, restoration is setting things right again, and reconciliation is the renewing of relationships that have been broken by sin” (50).

Repentance in the Leaders. Reeder tells the story of a church that had gone through a process of renewal. The council of this church came to a place where they felt led to confess to the congregation the sin of acting as a board of directors rather than as shepherds of the flock. They read a letter to the congregation asking for forgiveness. “As a show of unity they all brought stones marked with their names and Bible verses and piled them up together to mark the day of a new beginning rooted in the forgiveness and reconciling power of the gospel” (51).

Repentance in the Church. The Bible contains stories of how “sin in the camp” can have a negative impact on the whole community of God’s people. The story of Achan who stole booty from Jericho, is an example (Joshua 7). Reeder observes that sometimes there is “a need for corporate confession because the body as a whole has not faithfully followed God’s Word” (53). Reeder’s church ended up asking forgiveness, in a very general way, from four hundred (!) families that had left the church over 13 years. One of the results was that it put an end to a lot of negative talk in the community about the congregation. In addition, Reeder notes that very specific sins may also need to be confessed by the church.

For part three click here.

His Story and Yours

Meditation, Sunday Evening, May 8, 2016
Philippians 2:1-11

I am currently reading The Silver Chair, one of the volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, toSilver Chair Puddleglum etc one of my daughters, to help her fall asleep at night. We read it a few pages at a time, and she gradually falls asleep. If I try to leave too early, she’ll grab my arm; she hasn’t heard the last two pages, but she won’t let me leave until she’s completely in the REM state, comatose, really. Then the next night, I’ll try to pick up where I left off, but she doesn’t remember the last several pages, so I have to go back. So we’ve been on page 80 for about a month. But reading the story gives her comfort, and helps her fall asleep.

Stories are powerful. Stories captivate you. Stories invite you in. They invite you to participate in the story.

In fact, the good news about Jesus Christ is a story.

The gospel is not, first of all, doctrine. I say that as someone who spent most of my life becoming an historian of Christian doctrine. I have a vested interested in doctrine. But the teachings come from the story. And the gospel is not, first of all, ethics. Yes, there are Christian principles, about behavior and right and wrong, but the good news is not a list of rules for being a good person. The gospel is good news for people who are not good. For lawbreakers. When the Apostle Paul wants to urge the Philippian church to model their attitudes after Jesus (a kind of ethical point), he does so by telling the story of Christ’s life. But he begins the story not with the manger, not with the shepherds. He begins the story in eternity, before he left his Father’s side, and became a real, flesh-and-blood human being.

We read the story of Jesus in those books we call the Gospels. And the story continues in the book of Acts. And when the first Apostles began their work of evangelism, they began by telling the story of Israel. They climb up the steep slopes that are the Old Testament, and at the summit, they find Jesus. His story is God’s story.

The gospel is a story that we recall in outline whenever we recite the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a story that we travel through in the church year, when, with the shepherds, we wait for Christ’s coming, in Advent. When we walk with Jesus on the road that leads to the cross, during Lent. When we awake on a Sunday morning to the news: “He is risen!” When we stand with apostles gazing up into the sky, wondering when we will ever see Jesus again.

And the good news is that his story can be your story as well.

Your life is like the unfinished manuscript of a novel. And this story has multiple authors. The first chapters of the novel of your life were written entirely by others. But gradually, your own additions begin to appear, first appearing as mere pencil scribbles in the margins, later scrawled in large, childlike letters. Eventually, your parents contribute less and less, and the paragraphs become largely your own. In the teenage years, you think it’s entirely your own story, and that you are the sole author. But later, when you look back at those chapters, you see the contribution of teachers, coaches, friends, and even your parents, though you would never admit it at the time. The major turning points in the plot are parts that either you wrote, by your own choices, or that were written for you, by events that happened to you. As the chapters grow more numerous, you notice parts that you wish you could go back and edit, or delete entirely, but the story of your life doesn’t work that way.

Only one of the co-authors of your life, who turns out to be the primary Author, can resolve the tragic parts, the pages of regret, the chapters of loss and lament. He is also the hand behind the pages of joy and celebration, the sub-plots of love and affection. He is the author not only of your story, but of Creation itself. He is the only author of his own life. His story begins before time, a love story, the objects of his love not yet even existing, yet loved nonetheless. The Son of God in glory, resolving to become a mere mortal, a human being, and not only that, but to endure rejection, mockery, false condemnation, and a cursed death. All in order to rescue those whose story was pure tragedy, an epic tale of rebellion, failure, disgrace. But he entered into that story, your story, our story.

He did that so that we could enter into his story. He makes his story, your story, and your story, his. And every day that you get out of bed, you have an opportunity to write another page. It doesn’t have to be like yesterday’s page. And the Holy Spirit will be your Muse, your inspiration, if you take the time to listen.

The way that you write the story of your life is like an open letter to the world, about what matters to you, what is beautiful to you, what you love and whom you love. But if you let Jesus into your story, it’s also an open letter about who loves you, and who so loved the world.

Pondering Proverbs

The following is part of a sermon on Proverbs 22:6, from November 15, 2015, that I had to cut out for reasons of time.

The New Revised Standard Version translates Proverbs 22:6 with clever rhyme:

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.

 Countless parents have looked to this verse for encouragement and reassurance when childrearing becomes difficult, especially in the teenage years. But I wonder how often this text has also created anxiety and confusion for some, or worse, if it has led parents to blame themselves for the delinquency of their children.

Because I bet most of us can think of a situation where dedicated parents had a kid who didn’t stay on the right path! It’s just not true that if parents are faithful and diligent, their children will automatically, 100% of the time, turn out to have a strong faith and devotion to Jesus Christ and his church. We probably all know of those painful exceptions. Maybe you have them in your own family.

But the exceptions prove the rule. So, you can probably think of more examples of how children who were raised in homes that intentionally nurtured faith and faith practices grew up to embrace that faith and continue to pass it on today. That’s what usually happens when parents are intentional about conveying what we have been referring to as a “sticky faith,” a faith that is more than just mere behavior and external rules. In the same way, you can probably think of other young people who didn’t have many adults in their lives who were committed to nurturing and forming their faith, and it’s no surprise when these kids lose their way. That’s what the proverb is about: how things normally work out, when one follows the way of wisdom.

And that brings up an important point about how Proverbs work. Proverbs are not promises. They’re wisdom sayings. They describe how things usually go. In fact, there are two proverbs in the Bible that directly contradict each other, and the Bible has no problem with this at all. Proverbs 26:4: Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Then comes Proverbs 26:5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” So which one is right?

Both are right, depending on the circumstances. But only one is right in a given situation. It is important to understand that proverbs only make sense to those who are wise and discerning. In addition, it is part of wisdom to know how to apply the right proverb, in the right situation, at the right time. So, in the case of trying to talk sense to a foolish person, only a wise person will discern when the first proverb is more fitting. In that case, the wise person already knows that it’s no use trying to talk sense into a certain individual, and that the attempt might even make matters worse, then it is the better part of wisdom to hold your tongue. Otherwise you may end up entangled in his or her foolishness, and it will reflect badly on you. But suppose the foolish talker is still young and perhaps teachable? In that case, the second proverb is more applicable, and the wiser person will confront the person about their foolish talk, in the hopes of turning them around.

The wise person, in other words, knows when to apply the right proverb. And, again, proverbs are only valuable to people who are wise or seeking wisdom. In fact, a few verses later we read that a proverb in the mouth of a fool is as useless as a paralyzed limb (26:7), or much more vividly, as useless as some drunk guy fending off his enemies with a thorny stick (26:9).

It is an interesting and entertaining exercise, by the way, to look up these proverbs in different translations!

Debating the Descensus

On October 2, 2015, I had a discussion with Western Seminary students, hosted by Prof. Todd Billings, about the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, traditionally called the descensus. It is the phrase: “He descended into hell.” At the end of the 1990s,

The Harrowing of Hell. Medieval illustration, including Hellmouth. Not the same Hellmouth as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Harrowing of Hell. Medieval illustration, including Hellmouth. Not the same Hellmouth as featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

someone in the Reformed Church of Australia (now the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia) lodged a gravamen (a complaint against a confessional statement) regarding this phrase. The Australian church body considered numerous changes, but wisely submitted the matter to other Reformed churches for review and input. The CRCNA formed a study committee, which gave its final report at the 2000 Synod. The report, which was largely authored by my PhD mentor Richard A. Muller, is an excellent example of solid historical, theological, exegetical, and ecclesiastical analysis. You can read the report here: Descensus report Agenda 2000.

The arguments for deleting or altering the phrase are astounding. They presume that “hell” only means the place or state of eternal punishment. In modern usage, that meaning is dominant. However, its usage in the creed can mean either the place or state of punishment (gehenna) or, more commonly, the rather more neutral realm of the dead (hades, or in Hebrew thought, sheol).

Others state rather confidently that when Christ utters “It is finished,” the work of redemption is complete and therefore there is no more to do. This is clearly false. The work of redemption is absolutely not finished (at least) until the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is his victory over death. Moreover, the intercession of Christ still continues, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, and the final judgment, where those in Christ will be declared not guilty, is still to come. And redemption applied is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. So one must be rather cautious about what “It is finished” means. Clearly it has to be limited to Christ’s suffering on the cross.

The original complaint to the Reformed Churches in Australia was apparently operating on the assumption that Jesus physically went to hell. That would be a new doctrine never heard of in the church, since orthodox believers have always confessed that Jesus’ physical body

Some who are considered evangelical leaders reject the descent into hell phrase in the creed, apparently unaware that by doing so they separate themselves from orthodox, universal Christian faith. John Piper, who considers himself Reformed, rejects the doctrine without much analysis. This is ironic, since no Reformed church would recognize as Reformed anyone who rejects an article of an ecumenical creed. He also refers to himself as a “Calvinist,” but Calvin would not recognize as a kindred spirit anyone who rejected this or any other article of the creed (let alone anyone who rejected infant baptism, as Piper does.) Wayne Grudem (whose theological positions are similar to Piper’s) also rejects the doctrine, also on mistaken grounds. Both put themselves perilously near the fringe of orthodox Christian faith by doing so. Neither seem to understand this. I suspect this has something to do with an overly rigid sense of sola scriptura, and a lack of understanding of how the Reformers honored universal Christian tradition as embodied in the creeds, as well as how they found more than adequate biblical grounds for the descensus. They also seem to care little about the effect such a selective recitation of the creed would have upon ecumenical relations.

Reading the 2000 report will save anyone who wants to study this issue from a multitude of theological sins.