A Time for Unity and Concern- Hearing John Owen’s Words about Suffering

December 31, 2008

Following up on my caution in the last post about a possible coming time of persecution for orthodox Christianity in America, I would like to share with you some words from the great Puritan preacher John Owen on how we should go about “bear[ing] the reproach [Christ] endured” (Hebrews 13.13).

These statements come from an excellent book I received concerning Owen’s views on the ordinance of communion entitled John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (which contains Owen’s posthumous work Twenty-five Discourses Suitable to the Lord’s Supper). In his twelfth discourse Owen discusses that the ordinance of communion demonstrates to us how we are to be conformed unto Christ’s death, and one of the facets of this that Owen illuminates is by our being conformed unto the means of Christ’s death which was by suffering. Thus Owen says,

There are four things required, that we may be conformable unto the death of Christ in suffering . . .

  1. The first in, that we suffer for Christ, 1 Peter 4.15-16 . . . . To suffer as a Christian is to suffer for Christ, – for the name of Christ, for the truths of Christ, for the ways of Christ, for the worship of Christ.
  2. It is required that we suffer in the strength of Christ; – that we do not suffer in the strength of our own will, our own reason, our own resolutions; but that we suffer, I say, in the strength of Christ. . . .
  3. It is required that we suffer in imitation of Christ, making him our example. We are not to take up the cross but with design to follow Christ. ‘Take up the cross,’ is but half the command; ‘Take up the cross, and follow me,’ is the whole command [Matthew 16.24] . . .
  4. We are to suffer to the glory of Christ.

[John Owen on the Lord's Supper, pp.183-4]

These are not meant to necessarily be words of comfort, but more so words of encouragement. In Owen’s time he himself was an outlaw Christian, a nonconformist in the days when conformity to the Church of England was required. He saw a loss of his own political power for not supporting the state sanctioned church and the dwindling and imprisonment of many of his fellow nonconformist due to the harshness of British law against them.

Therefore, in the spirit of Owen and others who came before us, we must stand strong in nonconformity to the unwritten laws of our day: to tolerance at the cost of integrity; to inclusiveness at the cost of God’s glory; to personal acceptance, fame, and maybe even freedom at the cost of “contend[ing] for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

This is going to get uglier before (if ever) it gets better, so taking in the words of someone who lived in persecution himself, and who communed with God as devoutly as any man of his generation, can only serve to benefit us, who likely have a very underdeveloped doctrine of suffering to begin with. We must see the truths in the practice to which we are called, of conformity unto Christ’s sufferings, and learn how to give God supreme and sole glory in all the persecution that we may come to endure.

A Time for Unity and Concern- Gauging the Fallout of the Rick Warren Controversy

December 30, 2008

Let me begin by being honest and saying I am no fan of Rick Warren. However, though my personal opinion is against the methodologies he has chosen as a preacher, I believe he will be in heaven with me nonetheless. Therefore, when I see him being treated as he is in the media right now I stop and take a look to see just what it is that’s going on.

For those of you who may not yet have heard, Pastor Warren has been selected by President-elect Barack Obama to deliver the invocation at his January inauguration. This has caused a major backlash in liberal democratic circles with the reason given being Warren’s unabashed stance against gay marriage, and in particular his endorsement of the successful California marriage amendment, Proposition 8. In the week-and-a-half since the announcement, the Warren debate has carried on all over the news world, including in a blog posting by Dr. Al Mohler which I found quite interesting.

All this said, I would probably not have posted on the issue had it not been for one set of commentaries that I came across. The articles I speak of are the two opinion pieces written on the issue by infamous (and supremely arrogant) anti-theist Christopher Hitchens (articles one and two). In these articles, especially the first, there are several things which stick out to me as being disconcerting not just for fans of Rick Warren, but for most consistent, knowledgeable American evangelicals. Here is a quote from the beginning of the first article:

[I]f someone publicly charges that “Mormonism is a cult,” it is impossible to say that the claim by itself is mistaken or untrue. However, if the speaker says that heaven is a real place but that you will not get there if you are Jewish, or that Mormonism is a cult and a false religion but that other churches and faiths are the genuine article, then you know that the bigot has spoken.

Hitchens continues on to call out Rick Warren for his own “bigoted” views in this respect, as well as to label former SBC president and influential preacher W.A. Criswell as a “dismal nutbag” (He bases this in part off of Criswell’s belief in dispensational premillennialism, which again, though I don’t agree with the theological view, I do not believe it condemnable).

This all is disconcerting for your everyday evangelical because the stances which Hitchens is decrying are not “crackpot” and unusual like he makes them seem, but instead are actually at the core of mainstream orthodoxy. The sinfulness of homosexual behaviors, the exclusivity of the gospel, and some sort of Christian eschatology are not radical views, at least not from a biblical standpoint, yet being firm and convicted in them has led to a typically well-liked evangelical being run through the crapper of media scrutiny. If that is what’s happening to Rick Warren, just imagine what may happen to a little old Bible-believing baptist minister who isn’t making millions of dollars a year, living in California and rolling with Presidential candidates. If Warren could so quickly fall out of favor, how much more danger are we in as common biblical Christians?

I dislike making dire pronouncements, and praying for the rapture isn’t my idea of our Christian mission, but I do not believe that we can ignore the animosity and distrust that is rapidly arising from the popular culture against orthodox Christianity. For many years, possibly half a century or so, tolerance has been cruising it’s way to the top of American social thought. But in the last few years we have seen a steady increase from disdain of Bible-based Christianity in America to outright anger towards it. Now with the election of a radically liberal president and the controlling powers of liberal politicians in Washington and in the media, the fields are ripe for persecution. Someone of Rick Warren’s stature, though it looks bad publicly, will most likely not feel a great effect from this recent uproar. However it is you and I, the common everyday, hard-working American evangelical, who are about to put all those Don’t Waste Your Life books to the test.

The Work of Arrogant Fools- Mark Driscoll on Church Planting

December 29, 2008

As some of you may be aware, over this past year I received the call to be a church planter.  As it is, there is probably no sexier call in the Christian faith right now.  Everyone and their brother is planting churches and trying to establish their self as the next Dan Kimball, Mark Driscoll, or Apostle Paul.  Because of this, working out that calling and discerning whether it is truly what God has intended for you is more important than ever.  To that end, braches of various denominations (such as NAMB and IMB in the SBC) and individual planting networks (like Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace) have put together planter assessments that they feel are likely to pick out the most (spiritually) gifted of the men who desire to start a new work.

At one recent such assessment in Dallas, TX, Mark Driscoll, founder of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network and pastor of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA, gave a message entitled “The Mission and Vision of Acts 29 Network” (listen here).  This message turned out to be one of the most challenging and motivating sermons I have heard about church planting to date.  In it, Pastor Mark discusses various issues surrounding planting, such as what constitutes a local church, what trials a church planter is likely to run up against, and how one should view cooperating with denominations and networks, and provides a very poignant and introspective look at the life of a church planter.

This message does run a little long (about an hour and 16 minutes), but if you have felt or are wrestling with a call to church planting I would highly recommend listening to it.  I have logged tremendous hours listening to Driscoll, Stetzer, Keller, Piper, and many others trying to prepare for the job of planting a church, but this one message stands above all the others I have heard so far.

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

The Reason for the Season- Celebrating Jesus’ Birth in Isaiah 53.12

December 28, 2008

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors
.” -Isaiah 53.12

Isaiah 53 closes with one last reminder of why Jesus came: to “[bear] the sin of many” and to “[make] intercession for the transgressors.”

The child was promised to be king, and after doing what no other man could do, he was exalted as such by his Father in heaven (Acts 2.32-33, Ephesians 1.20-23).  The child given gifts by the Magi, is now given gifts by God, and in his majesty he has decided to share that gift, that royal inheritance, with those who are called by his name (Romans 8.12-17, Galatians 3.26, 1 Peter 1.3-5).

This is the good news.  This is the Gospel.  This is the reason for the season.

The Reason for the Season- Celebrating Jesus’ Birth in Isaiah 53.11

December 28, 2008

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities
.” -Isaiah 53.11

At Christmas the focus is on gifts.  And inevitably someone will get cliche and remark that the greatest gift of all is the one God gave to Mary: Jesus.  Is that true?  Is that the good news?  That Jesus was born in a manger?  Why is a baby born in a horse stall supposed to be good news to me?

It’s not.  Plain and simple, if all Jesus did was to be born in a manger, that’s no good news for anybody but his parents.  And that’s certainly no greatest gift.

God’s gift was not given as Christmas, it was given at the cross, where the record of our sin debt to him was nailed up with Jesus to be atoned for (Colossians 2.13-15).  The good news is that by Christ’s death, those who believe in him may have his own righteousness “accounted” to them (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21).

We must not truncate the well-known verse, saying just, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”  If that’s all we have then we are in no less sorry of a condition than we were before this so-called “greatest gift.”  Thanks be to God that it’s not.

The Reason for the Season- Celebrating Jesus’ Birth in Isaiah 53.10

December 27, 2008

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand
.” -Isaiah 53.10

Lest we forget, in celebrating Christmas, why this all came about in the first place: it was “the will of the Lord.”  Jesus being born, ministering, dying, and resurrecting, all of this was part of the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2.23).  Christ wasn’t just born as an adventure, to see what it was like being human; there was always a purpose, always a plan, which he was incarnated here to complete.

And just as Mary looked down with pleasure at her baby boy wrapped in swaddling cloths, so too did the Father look down with pleasure at his son robed in blood, hanging from the cross.  This pleased him since, knowing death could not hold him, the Father was then to raise Christ again (Acts 2.24) and in raising him secured the salvation of all his sheep (1 Corinthians 15.17-20), who will receive the unfading inheritance of this act in the last time (1 Peter 1.3-5).

The Reason for the Season- Celebrating Jesus’ Birth in Isaiah 53.9

December 27, 2008

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth
.” -Isaiah 53.9

Born under humble circumstances, buried in luxury.  Though he was killed as a criminal his body was not left like a criminals to be scavenged by the birds.  The Father provided for him a proper burial, that when he rose three days later there would be no question of its authenticity.

Also, we think of Christ the infant as peaceful, silent, and “lov[ing] pure light,” but the true measure of his divinity is that the same could be said of him as an adult.  All of us sin (Romans 3.23) and turn to our wicked ways, walking in the paths of the world (Ephesians 2.1-3).  As adults we are all sufficiently defiled, through our thoughts and actions.  Yet of Christ it was possible to say “he had done no violence” and “no deceit was in his mouth.”  How often do we really meditate on this?  It is hard enough to imagine one day without the cross thought or word coming out of us.  So to ponder what a life of pure connection to the Father was like, and the excruciating pain of losing that on the cross, is something I don’t think we can understand in with our finite means.

The Reason for the Season- Celebrating Jesus’ Birth in Isaiah 53.7-8

December 26, 2008

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
” -Isaiah 53.7-8

The Lamb of God knew his purpose.  Like an obedient lamb he did not resist the plan of the Father.  It was his choice to lay down his life, and he did so willingly (John 10.18).

Thus it ended.  The life, started in a barn, born to a teenage virgin mother, now poured out upon a cross, sacrificed for the sins of Israel.  The life which was started with its end always in mind, and now upon the cross he has been “cut off out of the land of the living.”

If this were all, that birth in a manger would not seem so extraordinary.  If he died just a simple death, like any other man, he would not have accomplished much.  But he did, for the same reason his birth was so spectacular: he’s not any other man, he’s the God-man.  Because of this his sacrifice was “without blemish” (Hebrews 9.14) and his death stands as a substitution for all who’ll believe on him (2 Corinthians 5.21).

Willingly he laid down his life that, though we choose to run straight to hell, we might be granted an eternity in his presence.

The Reason for the Season- Celebrating Jesus’ Birth in Isaiah 53.6

December 26, 2008

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned-every one-to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all
.” -Isaiah 53.6

As we gather around the manger, who does not want to be there worshiping the “newborn king”?  We gladly announce “the first Noel” and talk about that “silent night.”

Yet all of us “like sheep have gone astray.”  We may be influenced by the docile nature of a sweet little baby, or by the memories of Christmas’ past, but once the season moves on how much regard do we have for the one born there?

We have “turned . . . to [our] own way.”  Even at Christmas we turn to spending however much money it takes to make us happy.  Or like myself, we stress about buying the perfect gifts, that the recipient would not have an enjoyable Christmas otherwise.  This is our sin, our indulgence.  Our behavior over Christ’s birth makes the reason he was born, to have “the iniquity of us all” “laid on him,” all the more necessary.

“No More Heroes” Posted at SBC Voices

December 24, 2008

Tuesday my article “No More Heroes” was posted at SBC Voices.  This article is focused on what our attitude should be in “following Jesus” stemming from a John Piper sermon I listened to a few weeks back.  Here is the introduction:

I was listening to a sermon by John Piper on my iTunes the other day when he said something that really intrigued me. Now, Dr. Piper often says things which I find stimulating and inspiring, but this little blurb hit me harder than most. He said, “Following Jesus is first and foremost not heroic!” Not heroic.

The rest of the article (and many other intriguing Baptist posts) can be found here or from the SBC Voices main page.  Merry Christmas!