feature articles

Means of Grace

Among the most prominent distinctions within Protestantism is the primacy of preaching.  As such, it should come as no surprise that our history is replete with men who excelled in this discipline.  One might think of such notable giants as James Montgomery Boice, John Stott, or D. Martyn Lloyd Jones.  Of course no list of legendary pulpiteers would be complete without mentioning the Prince of Preachers himself, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, as well as two of the Great Awakening luminaries: Jonathon Edwards and the highly revered George Whitefield (a.k.a. George Whitfield). 

     However, despite his immense popularity amongst those in Reformed circles due to his Calvinistic soteriology, and at the risk of upsetting the new young Calvinists, it must be conceded that Whitfield’s ecclesiology left much to be desired. 

     As an itinerant preacher who employed methodologies akin to revivalism, he placed an inappropriate amount of credence in his events and their supposed results.  For Whitfield, the emotionalism that most often accompanied such events was perceived to trump that of the otherwise normative methodologies of the church; namely the means of grace.

     While I am not opposed to the possibility of genuine, God-ordained revival, I am opposed to revivalism (by revivalism I am referring to that which is driven by man-centered efforts to conjure emotion, which would then be interpreted as evidence of genuine conversion).  However, assuming agreement amongst my readership, the primary focus of this article will not be to present biblical support for the means of grace in opposition to revivalism or its methodologies, but rather to simply delve into the means of grace themselves; considering both their purpose and application.


The Ascension Revisited

     The belief that Christ Ascended into heaven is one the cornerstones of Christian faith and theology. Its seminal place in Christian thought is cemented in many of the great creeds, most notably the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Ascension is placed right alongside, the Incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ in the aforementioned creeds with no indication that it is by any means of lesser importance or magnitude. Some may find it strange, however, that such a seminal event would be recorded in just one of the four Gospels, Luke, and even stranger that Luke is the only author in general that records the event, recording it also in Acts 1: 9-11. 

    Our major source of information on this crucial subject is given to us by Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts, which has proven to be a somewhat perplexing title. The title “Acts” was added in the second century.1 “So far as the extant evidence goes, it first received its title in the so called anti-Marcionite prologue to the third Gospel.”2 Some of the early fathers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria) called it “The Acts of the Apostles”3 despite the fact that the book focuses only on the ministry of Peter and Paul. In some Christian circles it is assumed that the book is primarily about the Acts of the Holy Spirit. One can see how this could be an easy conclusion to draw given the major outpouring of the spirit in Jerusalem (2:1-4), Samaria (8:17), Caesarea (10:44-46) and Ephesus (19:6). Luke however starts off Acts by connecting it to his Gospel account and telling Theophilus that it is a book about all that Jesus began both to do and teach.4 It seems painfully clear that this book, Acts, is a recording of the Acts of the ascended Jesus. “Christ is ascended, but his abiding presence and energy fill the whole book of Acts and the whole succeeding story of his people on earth.”5 

    The Ascension of the risen Lord is the backdrop against which the drama of the entire


The Compass of The Word: Exploring Truth and Wonder in Poetry

I.  The Truth is Like Poetry

    In The Big Short, Michael Lewis shares a quote he heard in a Washington D. C. bar: “the truth is like poetry and most people [expletive] hate poetry.”  The quote is circular in the nature of its meditation—Why do most people hate the truth?  Why do most people hate poetry?  The quote is also like a poem in the way that it makes the reader stop and think, “That’s true!” We recognize the truth even when we do not entirely know what “truth” we are acknowledging.   At this point, you are probably agreeing with the idea that you “hate poetry,” (and the expletive is optional depending on the level of your hate). 

    As a lover of poetry (and the truth), I love the quote.  It makes me think of another quote from Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”  For me poetry is among the “good things” in this world that “come by grace” “and art” and do “not come easy.”  The technological age seems to have made poetry even more difficult and inaccessible.  For example, in one of his Hillsdale Dialogues with Dr. Larry Arnn, Hugh Hewitt discusses Homer’s poem The Iliad.  Hewitt tells Arnn that in our society “we are used to quick things” and “reading The Iliad” quickly “denies ourselves pleasures.”  Dr. Arnn agrees with Hewitt and responds, “if you read Homer with attention, you will never forget it and it will be your friend till the day you die.”  Dr. Arnn also adds that reading poetry takes “practice . . .  it’s very absorbing, it should be quiet” and you have to “keep at it for awhile . . . it’s very good.”  

    One of the central inhibitors to poetry in the technological age is the so-called “smartphone.”  Far from the focused and studied absorption described by Dr. Arnn, the smartphone lends itself to the quick fix—we seem to be ceaselessly scrolling up and down, swiping left and right, and clicking onto our hyperlinks.  And unlike the novel, which continues to thrive, poetry often lacks the narrative thrust of a story to pull the reader along.  Still, sometimes I think that poetry should be experiencing a renaissance in the smartphone era—a sonnet, for example, is a quick read and it fits quite nicely onto one my iPhone screen.  The problem is that reading poetry often requires mental exercise that our sometimes couch-potatoed minds do not want to do.  Poetry also requires a sense of wonder.  As Tom Waits once stated in an interview with Paste magazine, “we have a deficit of wonder.  I think it’s because of....


How Deep The Father's Love For Us

There are few images more familiar to those of us who grew up in evangelical churches than that of Jesus with a lamb around his neck.  From VBS lessons on flannel boards ( Yes, I know this dates me, but for you youngsters, they were the forerunners to the Smartboard) to illustrated children’s Bibles, this sentimental image shaped the imagination of many a young American Christian.  The image is Biblical of course and is taken primarily from the parable in Luke 15 in which Jesus asked his listeners to consider the mindset of a shepherd that had lost one of his sheep.  Would he leave the lost sheep to perish? Never.  Rather said Jesus, “He would leave the ninety-nine and search until he found the one lost sheep and bring him home.”  Now I have no idea whether or not a typical shepherd would in fact leave his ninety nine sheep, exposing them to the dangers of the wild and go after the one.  But Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” and as was his way, he turned the prevailing logic of his day on its head and in his “foolishness” revealed the infinite wisdom of God.   

As was often the case, Jesus told his parables in a context of controversy.  On the occasion of this parable in Luke 15, the Pharisees and Scribes, who were continually offended by his flouting of their traditions were once again standing with arms folded, brows furled, grumbling amongst themselves, this time over Jesus’ choice of company.  This perhaps more than anything else got under their skin for in their minds Jesus had gotten everything backwards.  Those who were at the center of the cultic life of Israel, he ignored or worse, he rebuked.  On the other hand, those on the fringes, ostracized by the elites, he embraced.  From lepers and demoniacs to tax collectors and “sinners,” Jesus defied the social norms of his day; touching them, healing them, and eating with them.   As they stood complaining about his audience of losers, Jesus told them...


Is God For Islam In Europe?

We are experiencing a real and present threat against our freedom today in the West. We saw what happened in Paris a few months ago, as well as the recent attacks in Southern California, Holland, Indonesia, Egypt, and so on.  It seems that no nation is exempt from this out break of terror which is threatening our globe and Christians are especially vulnerable to these attacks. Thousands of Christian brothers and sisters have been executed in Syria, Iraq, and other ISIS held countries. In 2013 the Muslim Militant group Al-Shabab stormed the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and killed 67 people. One survivor said, “...if you were a Christian you were shot on the spot...” Thankfully terrorist attacks in Europe have historically been few and far between. They are always tragic but at least they have been relatively rare. 

In general Europe has been a very safe place to live but that security is becoming rapidly less and less certain. In Germany, for example, muslims represent the largest minority in the country and demographers say that within 50 years Islam will become its dominant religion. This is a shocking prognosis in a land which was once known as the Holy Roman Empire and the home of the Protestant Reformation. Such a projection may seem unlikely, or even smell suspiciously like “right-handed” propaganda and “fear-mongering” but it is not. It is a projection that is not based on any political ideology but simply founded on raw demographic data. No one believes that Islam will overrun Germany by way of military invasion, nor will Islam successfully convert any significant number of Germans to its faith. The source of the demographers bleak outlook in Europe is entirely based on birth rates over the past several decades. German non-Muslims are reproducing at a rate of around 1.5 per family while Muslim families are reproducing at a rate of about of 2.2 per family. This statistic has remained steady for several decades and the subsequent generations will see effect....


Irony of Ironies

This past August my family and I visited Orlando, Florida.  We stayed in two different resorts, each with their own water park.  We visited some friends as well, and enjoyed a relaxing day at the beach.  However, the main attractions, at least for our children, was to be a day at Legoland theme park, mainly for our son, and a day at Disney World, mainly for our daughter.  Due to the thorough research of my wife, we were able to brave the scorching heat; equipped with moisture-wicking attire, water-bottle carrying fanny-packs, cooling towels, and battery powered water-misting devices.  So, in spite of the sweltering heat, the notoriously long lines, and the low, constant groaning of our American Express cards, we were able to enjoy a rather memorable family vacation.

The irony of ironies is found in the fact that we took our vacation in the midst of a preaching series I was giving on the book of Ecclesiastes.  Even a cursory reading of this book will avail the Preacher’s great motif; vanity of vanities, all is vanity!  It is not hard to see that the Preacher, Solomon, is uncompromising in his efforts to force his readers to look upon the rather grievous nature of life here under the sun.  Though Disney in August felt very much like life directly under the sun, this is not the heart of the irony.  

Instead, the heart of the irony lies in the striking contrast that I was subject to during our vacation.  While, on the one hand, I was visually inundated with happiness–– endless images of Disney characters and rides, the very benchmark of theme park utopia, not to mention the tickling of my, and more effectively, my children’s ears, with the workings of a subliminal masterpiece of carefully woven-together Disney sound bites; on the other hand, I was simultaneously hearing the echoes of Solomon’s words in my head.  In such places as Legoland and Disney World, there seems to be absolutely no room for the sufferings or injustices that Solomon relentlessly observes.  Even in Disney movies, once the evil characters are introduced, the good guys come in, battle against the forces of evil, find themselves with the odds stacked against them, and somehow––because good always triumphs over evil––they defy the odds, defeat the villains, save the day, and, of course, get the girl.  Only in a perfect world; only in the movies, and it seems, only in Disney World, do such flawless balancing of the scales of justice occur.....


God's Smile

Four years at Chapel Field Christian High School forever altered my ability to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Every morning, in patriotic duty, we stood, placed our hands on our chests, and recited the well-known declaration of devotion. Then, in Christian duty, we remained and renewed our religious loyalty: “And, I promise to live my life always, in His presence, under His authority, and for His glory. Coram deo.” The Church sometimes mocks or belittles regular repetition as mere religiosity, but overlearning certain truths and overstating certain commitments has lasting value.

For example, Presbyterian parents have asked their children, what is man’s chief end? for hundreds of years. Even toddlers can know their life’s purpose. For thousands of years, nearly every corner of Christianity has recited the brief profession of faith known as the Apostles’ Creed. The very old and the very young can know the essential truths of saving faith. For even longer, pastors and priests have proclaimed to God’s assembly divine blessings according to the poetic pattern given to Moses in Numbers 6:24-26:

             The LORD bless you and keep.

             The LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

             The LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.  (ESV)

 

This declaration is not an empty ritual and it is not the words of mere men. Rather, this statement communicates God’s promise to possess and bless His people. He tells Moses that an oral publication of three couplets of favor puts His name upon the people, guaranteeing their well-being (Numbers 6:27). God claims His people and blesses them whenever His servants declare His Benediction. 

Usually, God’s people are slow to believe His promises. In times such as the present, believing God’s guarantee of the Church’s well-being can be exceptionally difficult. In America, brutal infanticide (aka “abortion”) makes God’s promise that Christians will see their children’s children (Psalm 128:6) seem unattainable. The even more prolific plagues of divorce, domestic abuse, pre- or extra- marital sex, and pornography have reached a plateau known as “normal”….


Blaming God

The long line of ants parading across the kitchen counter leads to a jar of sticky strawberry jelly left open last night by someone who raided the fridge for a midnight snack. A perturbed voice echoes through the house: “Who forgot to put the jelly away? Daa-ad?” Blame. We point a finger at another person and say, “It’s your fault.” When we blame, we assign responsibility usually in an attempt to hold someone accountable (for not putting away the jelly) or to explain an event (a thousand ants doing the conga in the kitchen). Blame is almost always an indictment. The prophet Nathan stood before King David to confront him about his adultery and the murder of Uriah. Perhaps you’ve imagined the scene as he solemnly utters the words, “Thou art the man.” Blame. Responsibility has been placed at the feet of David.Or, as the sign on President Harry Truman’s White House desk announced, “The Buck Stops Here”. In a folksy way, Truman invited citizens to blame him if things in the country weren’t going the way they should. At the same time, he wanted to take the credit if things were going well.

Now, I know I’m being a bit cheeky in using the word “blame” since both credit and blame are the similar action of assigning responsibility. But the issue on my mind is how we assign responsibility to God for what goes on in the world and in our lives. My hunch is that when we “blame” God, the doctrine of God takes a beating, our relationship with God suffers, and we open ourselves to doubt and fear.

As I reflect on my own behavior, particularly the opinions I blurt out without thinking, I have to admit that I frequently, and sometimes carelessly, assign responsibility to God for what


Islam: A Religion Of Peace? (part 1)

This question is important not simply for academic and eristic purposes, but also for the purposes of public policy and national security.  Notice that the tile of this paper is a question about the nature of Islam, a religion, and not necessarily about the character of Muslims qua Muslims, the followers of Islam.  One might conclude that the majority of Muslims is peace loving, or even that a super majority is peace loving, say 95%, I do not know.  It would be difficult to know such a thing like that.  The best current polling that we have on the attitudes of Muslims from countries around the world, though, is not all that reassuring for non-Muslims.  Nevertheless, one can believe in the irenic outlook of the vast majority of Muslims and still believe that Islam itself is not necessarily a religion of peace.  The focus of this effort then is on the nature of Islam.

    This paper is divided into two parts.  In the first part I probe the beliefs and practices of Muhammad and the founding generations.  This will involve looking at the primary documents, the Qur’an and the Hadith reports.  In all, this early period will take us up through the first three generations, after which some conclusions will be drawn.  In the second part, I examine how Islam has been assimilated and practiced in certain periods in history up to the present, and then present some final conclusions. ...


What kind of Culture War?

     The story was a familiar one - they would be princesses. The society cultivated three Chinese sisters through a complex set of demands and rituals all prescribed by tradition. Their society carefully refined them to serve as representatives of the people, incarnations of the country. In the end their kingdom demanded that they submit their individualities to its needs – marry three foreign princes to secure a treaty. The storybook plot suffered a fatal flaw.