Resource Saturday- Towards Respectfully Engaging Roman Catholicism

August 8, 2009

Over the last couple of months I have been under conviction to earnestly and academically interact with the official teachings of the Roman Catholic church in order to prepare myself for ministry to people who come out of a Catholic background.  Even though many of these people are likely going to be Catholic in name only, I should be prepared to accurately speak on the doctrines of their church, which is a task that as of two months ago I was wholly unequipped to do.  Like I told my wife, I want to be able to know more about Catholicism than Catholics.

So, to start myself along that path I have been reading from two sources.

The first one is a book written by Thomas Howard, a former evangelical who has “returned to Rome.”  It is entitled On Being Catholic and offers a broad, though at most points theologically shallow, perspective on Roman Catholicism.  Addressing issues ranging from ecclessiology to Mariology to soteriology, Howard does his best to give an insight into the life of a doctrinally aware Catholic.  At the same time he makes an argument for evangelicals to say that our two traditions are not as far apart as we often think.  Throughout the book I found myself seeing how the different doctrines logically sprang from one another, even though I ultimately had to reject the premises upon which most of them were built.  All in all the author manages to give a very clear layman’s understanding of why Catholics do what they do.

The second text I read is historian Mark Noll’s venture with journalist Carolyn Nystrom into answering the question Is the Reformation Over? This is a very interesting look at the current state of relations between Protestantism and the Catholic church.  Because of the nature of Catholicism, where official teachings are set down by the Magisterium, one can look at the document containing them, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and (surprisingly?) see that much of what they have to say is tolerable, likely even identical, to the teachings coming out of evangelical pulpits.   Place on top of this the growing calls from voices on both sides of the Reformation divide to join together in evangelistic cooperation and you find that the question of whether or not the Reformation is over is not as cut-and-dry as on the surface it may seem.

I am convinced that it is time for American evangelicals to reassess their understanding of Catholic doctrine.  In the end I believe that there are still many points on which the differences are irreconcilable, but the attitude that is commonly brought to the table makes seeing the similarities nearly impossible.  If we are ever to reach the nominally Christian individual in this post-Christian/post-Catholic nation then a good first step is cutting through the stereotypes and misinformation that most of us cling to when it comes to the Catholic church.

Acting by Necessity- Understanding Sovereignty Distinct from Compulsion with Basil Manly, Sr.

August 7, 2009

One of the loudest criticisms of Calvinist soteriology comes in the realm of understanding the working of the Effectual Call.  Many would declare a God who sovereignly chooses whom he will save and then effectually calls them to salvation as an abomination, as one who is infringing upon the free will of man to choose as he wishes for or against Christ.  They talk about ‘determinism’ and how this is inconsistent with the necessity of faith for salvation.

Now, first of all, I reject these criticisms.  However, in saying that I do not plan on giving an extended explanation of why I believe such at this time.  Sufficed to say, if you really must know, I follow the same argumentation used by Edwards in The Freedom of the Will and contemporary Calvinists such as Bruce Ware, where they argue that the fundamental place of God’s working is not in our actions but at the level of man’s desires, out of which flow all of man’s actions.

No, I do not plan on going into much further detail.  Instead what I want to do is share a succinct accounting I found on this issue in the wonderful little book, Soldiers of Christ: Selections from the Writings of Basil Manly, Sr. & Basil Manly, Jr. The argument comes from the pen of Basil Manly, Sr., key member in organizing the Southern Baptist Convention and father of Southern Seminary co-founder Basil Manly, Jr.  Here is what he has to say:

Necessity in human action is not the same as compulsion.  If God works in us to will and to do, there is a necessity that we should will and do; but we are not compelled either to will or do.  The act is obliged to be; but the man, in acting, is free. . . .  In regard to salvation, so far from compelling a man, against his will, the very thing which God does is to make him willing to act right. . . .  The Christian is willing, and chooses to do right; because a divine operation has made him so.  He feels free; he is conscious that he is as heartily free in now trying to serve God, as when he went after the vanities and follies of his unconverted state. (p.124)

This is probably not as clear as it can be on first reading; but take some time, read over it again, and then meditate on what he says.  The argument is subtle but makes an important distinction, and few of the men I have read on this subject say effectively as much in as little as Pastor Manly manages to do here.  Enjoy!

More than ‘Sola Fide’- Self-Examination and Assurance in 2 Corinthians 13.5

August 6, 2009

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13.5)

One wonders if Paul were speaking to us for the first time today, if many American evangelicals would decry him as being outside the bounds of the gospel message?

“Examine yourselves”?  ”Unless you fail to meet the test”?  What type of work’s righteousness is this?

Or even worse, say they test themselves by trying to recall the date they prayed a special prayer.

Of course I’m saved.  I know when I asked Jesus into my life down to the second.  Look!  Here’s my spiritual birth certificate!

Alas, how can we judge Paul wrong when he says this?  Or elsewhere, when he tells us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12b)?  Or when Peter instructs us to “make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1.10)?

Let us not abuse the blessed truth of sola fide, justification by faith alone, by making that the final word in our journey with Christ.  For surely, justification is by faith alone, but salvation in total exhibits so much more, as in it God plans to conform us to the image of his Son (Romans 8.29-30).

Should we be satisfied by our hope that the prayer we prayed was the right one?  That the confession we repeated was earnest enough?  There is no doubt that God will sustain all those who truly come to him (cf. John 6.37, 40, 10.26-29, Romans 8.30), but is that all we should rest on?  Without assurance one is left every day to sweat under the future possibility of the fires of hell.  You just don’t know.  Peace comes by examining yourself and finding the evidences of a living faith flowing from your life (cf. Galatians 2.20, James 2.17).

Sovereign Means Free- Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 9.8

August 4, 2009

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9.8)

Have something unfortunate happen to you or some event arise which causes you anxiety and the sure repose you will receive from your Christian friends is a hearty, “God will provide.”  This sounds good, but in a day of abundant Christian mythology, one must always check: Does the Bible really say this?  The good news is, yes, indeed it does.

Now, let’s be careful how much we read into the text however.  Here we are told, “God is able to make all grace abound to you . . . ”  Able, not constrained or forced or committed.  It may be the case that though he is able, for some reason or another he may not be willing.  Take for instance what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12.7-9,

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

No where are we to assume that God was unable to do this thing Paul asked of him, it just so happened that God had a greater purpose in not doing it.  This is God’s prerogative and we as finite thinkers contain no right to judge negatively should God in his sovereignty choose not to do anything.

Similarly, he is “able to make all grace abound to you.”  What is ‘grace’?  We don’t initially know.  Grace may be material.  It may be wealth or possessions.  But it may also be favorable circumstances, fortuitous prohibitions, or any of another among a cadre of options.  Again, God is not under compulsion to provide what we think is appropriate.

God never lacks the ability to provide anything, but his refusal to sometimes exercise that ability or to exercise it in a way other than we expect is part of what it means for God to be sovereign.

Sunday Devotions- Penitential Thoughts on Psalm 25

August 2, 2009

Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O
Lord!” (Psalm 25.6-7)

When confronted with our ever-present sins, we quickly realize that our only hope is God’s steadfast love.  We know that the moment existed when God loved and forgave us of all our faults, but then in the wickedness of the flesh we go right out and commit the same atrocities against his grace that we were lost in before his appearance in our lives.

We sin against him, knowing fully that he has called us not to, and so our only refuge is in his memory of his love for us.  Earthly fathers would turn us out or grow disgusted at our rebellion, but God, when he comes in mercy to redeem us, does so fully that we may never be turned out again, though surely we would deserve it.

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
and forgive all my sins
.” (vv.16-18)

I have heard it said that loneliness is God’s way of telling us that we have a relationship problem.  If we are lonely though he is always there, it is because we are trusting in something other than him to satisfy.  I recall the clarity of this in my own life, when stepping out of the darkness of insecurity God surprised me with his wondrous presence.  Truly he did “bring me out of my distresses” and freed me to be alive in the comfort of his arms.

The most freeing of it all is the knowledge that God has forgiven my sins.  That “on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” and this in my place did he stand, so that now I may be seen by God as sinless, righteous in standing, though I in no way have earned this myself (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21).  Forever I may be in the presence of my God because Christ gave himself for me and by “his stripes [I was] healed” (Isaiah 53.5)

Resource Saturday- Recalling T4G 2008

August 1, 2009

Okay, so I didn’t get to go to the last one, but the other day I was thinking about how next spring the 2010 Together for the Gospel conference will be making its way into my new residence of Louisville, KY and it got me to listening to the messages from the 2008 gathering.  And you know what?  They’re not that bad.

Seriously though, it’s hard to see how anyone could not benefit from what was taught in Louisville in 2008.  One particularly good message is John MacArthur’s defense of the doctrine of absolute inability.  Often times I can find plenty to pick on with MacArthur, and even this message has a diatribe at the end where I feel Johnny Mac gets carried away preacing against contextualization, but for the first 40-or so minutes of the sermon he gives a good explaination and exposition of what he calls “the most attacked” and “most despised” doctrine in evangelical churches.

So, if you, like myself, cannot wait until next April and the messages coming about The (Unadjusted) Gospel, try to satiate yourself for a few hours with the wonderful offerings already put forth by these great theologians.  See you in Louisville.

Proof of Authenticity- Validating the Faith in 2 Corinthians 6.3-4

July 31, 2009

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” (2 Corinthians 6.3-4a)

One of the toughest challenges in Christian apologetics is proving the truth and reliability of our message.  Men may agree that what we say is in line with Scripture, but then dismiss Scripture as being false and so leave us with nothing.  However, the power of a faithful Christian witness can defend us against this.

I am not talking about a witness in the popular evangelical way.  In this way it is just another word we have coopted to mean yelling a cold, lifeless, ineffectual spiel at someone.  No.  By witness we should mean a life lived.  It is not the evangelist who is witnessing; it is the lost who are witnessing him!  They witness how what he does backs up what he says.  They witness a breathing example of the message being fulfilled.  Paul stakes the whole call upon his faithful witness, knowing that the commendation of his life will only give that much more evidence for the gospel that in 2 Corinthians 6.2 he claims is so urgent.

How and Why- Evangelism Cues in 2 Corinthians 5.20

July 30, 2009

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5.20)

Two things stand out to me here: “God making his appeal through us” and “On behalf of Christ.”

First, we hear that the evangelism of Paul and his partners is not the words of a man trying to get people saved.  It is God’s appeal through human instruments.  God has chosen to make his message known by the preaching of the gospel (cf. Romans 10.17).  Thus, our preaching is of necessity while at the same time being guaranteed.  God will get his message heard, his appeal made, and it will be by human messengers.

But, this preaching is neither man powered nor solely obedience.  Once again, return to Galatians 2.20:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The man that is crucified to self, living in the flesh by faith in Christ and Christ through him, willbe moved to evangelism.  Nothing is sheer will, everything is by the heart.  And God will guarantee the making of his appeal by controlling the heart of his evangelist.

Second, the call to reconciliation is made “on behalf of Christ.”  By the power of God I may love my neighbor and weep, if necessary, over his lostness, but the drive to evangelize him is not wrought of my own benevolence and love but of the will of Christ to reconcile them to God.  I alone dictate nothing.  God works sovereignly, either sovereignly with me or sovereignly against me.  Whichever way, it gets done, even is this may be by way of exposing my own pride.

A Wizard with Words – Placing 2 Corinthians 5.11 within Context

July 28, 2009

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” (2 Corinthians 5.11a)

This is a difficult verse which is often used by those of a non-Calvinist mindset to justify highly produced and/or overly dramatic “gospel calls” from the pulpit.  And taken without context one may seek to have as much liberty with the idea of ‘persuasion’ as seems right to a man.  However, approached in context, or at least with an eye to what has been said before, this liberty must be restrained.

Recall that in 2 Corinthians 2.17 Paul remarks,

For we are not like so many, peddlers of God’s word . . .

Therefore, though in chapter 5 he admits “persuad[ing] others,” this must be properly balanced by his earlier statement.  The key to this is what remains in 2 verse 17,

. . . but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

So, three things:

First, they speak “as men of sincerity.”  Their persuasion is not a show; it is a desperate plea from an earnest heart which lives to fulfill the Great Commission and see Christ glorified in the salvation of the lost.

Second, they speak “in the sight of God.”  Since it is knowledge of “the fear of the Lord” that motivates their persuading, so is it the knowledge of standing in the presence of God that motivates their restraint.  At no time should our actions attempt to steal away God’s glory– for that is the definition of sin– but even more in the presence of God should our concern be in honoring him appropriately.

Finally, they speak “in Christ.”  Though it is Paul who speaks we must not forget that he is the same man who wrote, “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2.20).  Thus, when he speaks, Christ comes out.  And when it is Christ the focus cannot be upon glorifying Paul or utilizing Paul’s power in conversion.  No.  The focus must surely be upon glorifying the cross and the great salvation which Christ earned there.

Persuasion must always be tempered with these thoughts, esle the preacher will rest too highly on his own presumed ability to “win souls” and fall into gross evangelistic sin.

You are the Gospel!- Rob Bell and the Anathema of “The Resurrection Rescue”

July 27, 2009

Clicking a link to something called “the Good News according to Rob Bell” is like hearing an episode of Friends is on TBS– you’ve already seen the show a hundred times but you watch anyways just in case.  So, I clicked it, pretty sure what I’d get, but attentive to see if there was anything redeemable.  Alas, it’s the one where he says Rachel’s name at the wedding again.

The video opens with Bell doing what he does best: standing still in Weezer-glasses, giving a “history lesson” on Judaism and the Roman Empire, denying all of the things evangelicals say and playing the tune of oppression of the poor and powerless.  Actually, it ends pretty much the same way too.  However, I did grab a bit of the transcript just for us to look at:

The gospel is the good news that God hasn’t given up on the world, that the tomb is empty and that a giant resurrection rescue is underway and that you and I can be a part of it. And so yes, this has a deeply personal dimension to it. Jesus is saving me. He’s saving me from my sins, from my mistakes, from my pride, from my indifference to the suffering of the world around me, from my cynicism and despair. The brokenness I see in the world around me is true of my own soul, and so he’s rescuing me, moment by moment, day by day, because God wants to put it all back together—you, me, the whole world. And so he starts deep inside each of us with our awareness that we need help, that we need saving, that we need rescuing. And then he begins to show us step by step what it looks like to put flesh and blood on this gospel. Because we all fall short, and that’s the beautiful part. Broken, flawed, vulnerable people like you and me are invited to be the hands and feet of a Jesus who loves us exactly as we are and yet loves us way too much to let us stay that way.

I believe. I believe because I see. I see the resurrection all around me. If people only had your life and they were asked the question, “Has Jesus risen from the dead?,” how would they answer? Has he? May you be a “yes” to the question, “Has Jesus risen from the dead?” And may you come to see, may you understand, that you are the good news. You are the gospel.

Where to begin?  Well, let’s start at the beginning.  ”The gospel is the good news that God hasn’t given up on the world, that the tomb is empty and that a giant resurrection rescue is underway and that you and I can be a part of it.”  I wonder where he got that from?  Empty tomb?  Okay.  God hasn’t given up?  Sure.  Resurrection rescue??  No atonement??

Rob Bell amazes me.  In a day when everyone wants to attack the atonement and what was accomplished on the cross, he just avoids altogether.  Honestly, I have listened to Bell enough to know that to him Jesus’ death on the cross was just a way to get him dead.  Nothing else.  At times he tries to add some sort of atonement in there, but it’s never very sincere.  Nope.  For Bell, the rescue is accomplished at the resurrection, and now that Christ is resurrected, “[he] is saving me.”  That’s funny, since Hebrews 10 tells us that,

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (vv.11-14)

So, who’s right?  Is it Bell who tells us that Jesus is raised from the dead to go around saving us “step by step”, or is it the Bible which says that Christ offered “a single sacrifice for sins [and then] sat down at the right hand of God” waiting for the second coming?  Is our salvation is “moment by moment, day by day” rescue, or is it the case that “a single sacrifice has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified“?

Clearly for Bell there are only two options: either he out and out denies what the Bible says about the atonement and Christ’s completed work of redemption, or . . . wait, I guess there’s only one option.  If our rescuing requires Christ’s continual work, then Hebrews is false and salvation is not secured by the cross.  Is that a bet you wnat to take?

Which of course leads into my other issue, namely that “You are the gospel.”  Really?  Is that what we’re told to do?  Are we supposed to be pointing to ourselves to lead people to God?  Are the claims of the Bible only as good as my witness?  I’ll concede that there may be good intention here, but the execution is very poor.  Right from the beginning the point is to minimize ourselves and point to Christ (cf. John 3.30), so to place the final emphasis on the believer and not somewhere more biblical, like say, Christ on the cross (cf. Galatians 2.20), is probably a bad course of action.

But like I said, what do you expect?  Everyone knows they we’re on a break, and everyone knows that each new Rob Bell production brigs us one step closer to universalism.  At least he looks cool distorting the gospel though.