Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thoughts on the World Vision developments

'10/06/2009 - Lucky' photo (c) 2009, Phil Wiffen - license:'s quick and contrite reversal by World Vision U.S. on its new same-sex marriage policy proved to be welcome news for most of those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Only two days after announcing it would hire people in same-sex marriages, the relief organization resorted to its previous policy after widespread opposition from influential evangelical leaders and, undoubtedly, sponsors. Its president and chairman said the board had made a terrible mistake and asked for forgiveness. As forgiven people, evangelicals should extend forgiveness to World Vision and pray for it and other Christian organizations to remain faithful to Scripture.

While we can rejoice in the ability to move forward regarding this incident, here are a few thoughts on this week's developments that are by no means exhaustive:

-- This was, and is, important. It is not just a minor annoyance when a Christian organization finds as acceptable sexual relations outside the covenant relationship designed by God. In its initial decision, World Vision showed a misunderstanding of or departure from the gospel and the authority of Scripture, the latter which the board acknowledged in its letter seeking forgiveness. It is difficult to understand how the board could think it would not encounter the widespread opposition that greeted its acceptance of same-sex marriage among employees.

-- To oppose World Vision's acceptance of same-sex marriage was, and is, not to betray needy children. Some bloggers who seemingly identify themselves as evangelicals sharply criticized at least some evangelicals who wrote posts taking issue with World Vision's initial policy change. These critics seemed to indicate the biblical admonitions to feed the hungry absolutely trump the biblical admonitions to reserve sex for true marriage. They made it sound as if the bloggers who disagreed with World Vision cared little for the destitute but much for targeting gays and lesbians. Yet, the blogs I read -- by such evangelical leaders as John Piper, Al Mohler, Russell Moore and Kevin DeYoung -- demonstrated graciousness and heavy-heartedness, as well as truthfulness and biblical faithfulness. As some of these blogs pointed out, how faithful are evangelicals to God and how much good are they doing if they relieve suffering in this life but approve policies that tell sinners they are okay to continue in practices the Bible says are indications they will suffer eternally if they do not repent?

-- To withdraw support from World Vision is not necessarily to withdraw support from evangelical relief and witness. World Vision is the best known of the international evangelical relief organizations -- kind of the 800-pound gorilla in the field. It is not the only one. That seemed to be the implication, however, from some who criticized those who disagreed with World Vision's original policy change. Compassion International and Food for the Hungry come quickly to mind. Singer Shaun Groves, who works with Compassion, provides what appears to be a balanced explanation of the difference between Compassion and World Vision in which he says, "Compassion always works through the local church to develop one child at a time into an adult who can transform their community some day. World Vision, sometimes in partnership with local churches, develops communities in a way that positively impacts the lives of children." You can read his explanation of the differences -- and he expresses support for World Vision -- here. Included in his post is a video by World Vision explaining its work.

-- This is about the gospel of Jesus. Several bloggers made this point eloquently after World Vision announced its original policy change. Piper explained it this way: "Make no mistake, this so-called 'neutral' position of World Vision is a position to regard practicing homosexuals (under the guise of an imaginary 'marriage') as following an acceptable Christian lifestyle. . . . Over against this, the apostle Paul says they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. It is that serious. If it were not, God would not have given his Son to be crucified for our rescue. Therefore, World Vision has trivialized perdition and the cross."

-- This is not the end. Hopefully, it will be for World Vision. Having humbly corrected its error, the World Vision board may be cured permanently from considering such an action. But we live in a culture where same-sex marriage has made stunning gains in the last nine months in courts, legislatures and public opinion. The pressure continues to mount for Christians to acquiesce to the spirit of the age rather than stand strong against the cultural winds. Christians, churches and evangelical organizations face a growing outpouring of human contempt and, likely, government sanction without obeisance. May we not bow before these or any other pretenders to the throne of God.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Invisible God in a visual medium: 'Chariots of Fire'

Portraying God, His work or His gospel on film appropriately and effectively seems to be a tricky proposition.

For instance, how do you portray the one true God, who is invisible, in a visual medium? Only with movies about the God-man, Jesus?

How do you portray God's attributes? Only in nature?

How do you present the gospel in a visual medium when it requires words to explain the gospel? Even movies that portray the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which is at the heart of the gospel, may not explain all of the gospel -- such as what those works of Jesus accomplished, the sinfulness of mankind and the saving gift of God through repentance and faith? Do you depend on dialogue only to do so in a medium that is first and foremost visual?

How do you show the mysterious work of God in a person's inner being?

I think the challenges can be partly met, but flawed attempts litter the celluloid landscape. Some rely on the verbal to a fault in a visual medium. Some come off as heavy handed or preachy. Some try to wrap everything up in a tidy package with a beautiful bow on top, as if Christianity is some American version of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. Some are too cautious and leave the viewer confused about the meaning.

I believe some directors and writers have succeeded -- maybe not for an entire movie but at least in profound and significant segments. Some have succeeded without being Christians. I post today a sequence that I believe succeeds. It may turn out to be the first in a periodic series I am labeling: "Invisible God in a visual medium."

"Chariots of Fire" is one of the movies I thinks succeeds in some powerful ways in meeting the challenge. Based on a true story, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1981 focuses on two British sprinters preparing for the 1924 Olympics. One is Eric Liddell, a strong Christian who went on to serve as a faithful missionary, dying in China as a prisoner during World War II. The film eloquently shows his determination to live in obedience to God -- in this case by not competing on Sunday.

The two-minute-plus clip below is not only my favorite sequence in "Chariots of Fire," but it is my favorite sequence in any movie I have ever seen. As Liddell reads portions of Isaiah 40 before his sermon in a Paris church, the film juxtaposes the description of God's sovereignty with the weakness of Liddell's teammates who are competing on Sunday. It is a profound cinematic portrayal of God's greatness, man's frailty and His Word's power.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What idols might we worship this Sunday?

How much idolatry do you and I practice in a normal corporate worship time on the Lord's Day? Yes, idolatry -- even while attempting to worship the one true God.

"[O]ur greatest problem when it comes to worshiping God doesn’t lie outside us, but within our own hearts. It’s the problem of idolatry," Bob Kauflin says in a recent post at Desiring God.

Kauflin, director of Sovereign Grace Music, writes:
Idolatry can be active in my heart even when I’m gathered with the church. Whenever I think I can’t meet with God unless “X” is present, I’m making a profound statement. If “X” is anything other than Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit, I’ve moved into idolatrous territory.

Of course, God uses means to reveal himself. We encounter him through his word read and preached, the Lord’s supper, fellowship with one another, and our songs and prayers. But when we make those means — or more specifically, the execution of those means — the basis of our fellowship with God, we’ve added an unnecessary barrier to meeting with him. We attend the gathering of the saints as idolatrous consumers and judges rather than grateful receivers and servants.
Those idols we may bow before during corporate worship include, Kauflin says, musical excellence and preference, preaching skill, creativity, experiences and liturgy.

The whole post, which you can read here, is well worth your time before this Lord's Day.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How will you prepare for next Sunday?

'St Ebbes 11:45 Service' photo (c) 2011, Jimmy and Sasha Reade - license: our Sunday morning discipleship hour, we have been discussing corporate worship as part of our look at Covenant Community Church's core values. Yesterday, we considered how to prepare physically, mentally and spiritually for corporate worship.

I blogged on this challenge in July 2012 during a series I wrote on corporate worship. I hope you will review and consider applying the practical suggestions below I posted at the time to help believers prepare for corporate worship:

-- Think ahead during the week before. Take mental note of God’s work in your life and of what attributes of His were manifested in that work. If you are the head of a household, lead your family to do this at least once during the week. On Saturday night or another appropriate time, consider what attributes you have to praise God for the next day during corporate worship. Think about how He has demonstrated those attributes in His works regarding you during the week. Ponder also what thanksgivings you will have to offer God in corporate worship for those works of His. Discuss these with your spouse. Lead your children to reflect on and prepare for praise and thanksgiving.

-- Read the “Preparing for corporate worship” item I post on this blog normally on Friday of each week. It certainly is not indispensable to preparation, but I write it each week with Covenant Community Church, in particular, in mind as our worship time together nears.

-- Read and think about the passage to be preached on in corporate worship. Normally I preach through a book of the Bible, so our church knows where I am going next. I usually send out an email on Friday about the coming Sunday’s worship and mention the specific passage I plan to cover.

-- Spend time considering if there are sins against God and offenses against others – especially those you will be worshiping with the next day – you need to agree with Him about, repent of, trust in Christ’s atoning work as payment for, receive His restoration to fellowship, and make right with another against whom you have transgressed.

-- Plan to get to bed early enough Saturday evening to get the rest you need to be an active, intentional and focused participant in corporate worship the next morning. The amount of rest needed varies by individual, but you know what that is for you.

-- Think about what you will consume in terms of entertainment on Saturday evening. Will you be able to make the transition from dwelling on trivial, sensual or violent material the night before to consideration of the holy God and His perfect Word the following morning? (Thanks to John Piper for this important consideration.)

-- Remind yourself – and those in your charge – of the basis upon which you will gather with other Christians for worship: The perfect righteousness and fully sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. We will come together as one body created by His cross-work.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The state of religious freedom: One Christian's story

The announced topic of discussion for our church's monthly care group meeting last Sunday was "how we are to live in a culture where threats to our freedom to express and practice our Christian convictions are quickly mounting." As a result of that meeting's cancellation, the plan is to address the topic during the next meeting, which is scheduled for April 13.

In the meantime, a viewing of the video below should provide some understanding of how this threat to the freedom of Christians in particular is playing out. The video, produced by the Alliance Defending Freedom, tells the story of Barronnelle Stutzman, a Christian who has operated a florist business in Washington state for decades. Based on her understanding of God's design for marriage, she refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. As a result, she is the target of lawsuits by the state goverment and private parties. This could be the future for many Christians in the land of the free. (HT: Denny Burk)


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Diversity: In the church as it is at the cross

I preached last Sunday from Revelation 4 and 5 on heavenly corporate worship and what we can learn from it. One of the main points of the sermon -- which is one of the main points of the text, I believe -- is that such worship is about the gospel, its centerpiece (the slain Lamb) and its reach (people from every group.)

Rev. 5:9 reports the heavenly worshipers sing this song to the Lamb: “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."

I intended to talk about diversity in the church in applying this truth of the reach of the gospel, but I didn't.

This song quoted from this corporate worship experience points to the truth Jesus, the Lamb of God, has died for a body that cuts across ethnicities, languages and people groups. The gospel that He and His work are at the heart of is for all people. Not all will be saved, but some from all people groups will be saved.

Regrettably, such a diverse gathering of worshipers is not reflected in our church and most other evangelical churches. Church growth principles say homogeneity -- which refers in this context to people who are alike -- is a key to growing a congregation numerically. In other words, a church might try to reach a particular demographic -- such as upper-middle class Baby Boomers or hipster singles in their 20s and 30s or young, professional blacks -- as a strategy for growing in numbers.

As a church, we don't agree with such an approach. That is not what we see in the New Testament, which describes churches that include Jews and Gentiles, slave and free.

We don't intentionally seek to be homogenous as a church. Yet, it seems we -- as Christians and as a church, apparently along with many other evangelical congregations -- struggle to avoid it. There seems to be something in our natures that causes us to befriend, spend time with and make to feel welcome those who are like us -- maybe in ethnicity, maybe in lifestyle choices, maybe in convictions. As a result, we don't reach out in the same way to those who are different than us. It is a natural pull I have to work to resist, and I've witnessed the same struggle in other disciples of Jesus.

Yet, the gospel teaches us it is the blood of Christ that has created a new people group that draws from all kinds of ethnicities, languages, social classes and interests. The gospel enables us to live in community with those we otherwise would have nothing in common.

Trillia Newbell -- a young black author of the new book United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity -- said it well recently:
When Christ calls us to Himself, He does not look at who we are in terms of ethnicity, nor does He call us because of who we are in any other way except that we are dead and in need of new life. We are equally saved. As a result, our churches should be the most gracious environments on the planet. More than any other places, the church should be more open to and excited about having people unlike themselves.
May this be the increasing reality of our church and other churches. May we pray that it would be so, and may we live with a gospel-centeredness that creates an environment in which it would become a reality.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The church and our preferences

What is the role of the church in the life of a Christian?

That is a question too often ignored by Christians or answered poorly by Christians. In fact, it seems some Christians question whether the church plays much of a role in their lives. In essence, their words and practice indicate they can take or leave the local church.

I believe I have grown in my understanding of the indispensability of the church to my life. And I think a lot of other evangelical Christians have as well during the last decade or two.

Some evangelicals, notably those in their 20s and 30s, have written biblically and effectively about the church, and Trillia Newbell is one of those. She is a young wife and mother whose first book was released March 1. Trillia, who is black, has written United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity (Moody Publishers). The Gospel Coalition excerpted part of her book in a March 4 blog post titled "Where Preferences Go to Die," and I highly recommend you read it. You can read the full post here.

Here are the opening paragraphs of some splendid thoughts about the church:
I love my church. Without question it's a community unified in worshiping the Father, ministering to our surrounding environment, and encouraging one another to deepen our faith. In some ways, though, I'm nothing like this body of believers. I look different. I have a different cultural background. There certainly are churches I could run to where everyone looks like me. That might be easier. Or I could find a church that sings and worships the way I prefer to—or one with a preacher who addresses his congregation in my favorite style.

But ultimately, I know all those preferential things are just that: preferences. If a church doesn't teach sound doctrine, after all, none of those preferences matters, since my soul could be at risk. I want to be in a place where I know I'll be fed the solid Word of God. This promise keeps me returning each Sunday morning; I need to be reminded that my greatest need is the good news, and that Jesus' redeeming love and resurrection is for today—for me today.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why I don't say, 'God told me'

'Used Bible' photo (c) 2008, Doug1021 - license: try not to say, "God told me" or "God spoke to me."

Why? The short answer is: "Because I want to be careful not to diminish the way I am certain God has spoken."

In what way am I certain God has spoken? In Scripture. I believe most, if not all, readers of this blog would affirm that truth. God has revealed Himself in His Word. The testimony of the Bible is God has spoken in its pages. To read Scripture is to read God's words. When we read the Bible, we can say God spoke to us in its words.

As Wayne Grudem has written in his massive Systematic Theology, "The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God's words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God."

So, I can say, "God spoke to me" or "God told me," when I am referring to the Bible. And it might be appropriate to use similar terminology when referring to the preaching or teaching of God's Word when it is handled faithfully.

That is not, however, how I normally hear fellow Christians use those words. Usually when someone says, "God told me" or "God spoke to me," he is referring to something subjective, maybe an impression in the mind or spirit. I have not come to the conclusion that God never uses impressions to provide guidance, as long as those so-called impressions are based on something a person has learned from God's Word or certainly don't contradict His Word.

In the case of a subjective sense or an inner impression, it would seem to be better to say something like, "I believe God showed me" or "I sense God is leading me." That is not the same, however, as saying, "God told me." In the latter case, a person is equating a subjective sense with the objective revelation of God in His Word.

Grudem's words are helpful in explaining why people need to be careful about saying God spoke to them:
God's words of personal address are uncommon, even in Scripture. Furthermore, even if we did hear some words of personal address from God to ourselves, we would not have certainty that our understanding of it, our memory of it, and our subsequent report of it was wholly accurate. Nor would we be readily able to convey to others the certainty that the communication was from God, even if it was.
When we read the Bible or listen to it read, we don't have this problem. We can say unequivocally, "God spoke to me." Otherwise, I don't think we can make that statement with certainty.

My request to fellow believers is this: Be careful to attribute to God the words and messages He actually has communicated. Words have meaning. Before you say, "God told me" or "God spoke to me," be certain that He did.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

What about God's judgment of America?

"If God doesn't judge America, He'll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."

You likely have heard that saying, or something close to it, from an evangelical preacher at some point during the last two or three decades. It is normally attributed to the late Ruth Graham. (Her husband, evangelist Billy Graham, has quoted his wife this way: "If God doesn't punish America, He'll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.")

The issue of God's judgment of the United States and other countries calls for careful thinking biblically and theologically. John Piper -- author and retired pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis -- provided a thoughtful look at God's judgment in a Feb. 25 blog post under "Will America Be Judged?" at Desiring God. You can read the entire thing here.

In his post, Piper cites five ways the Bible speaks of God's judgment, then addresses the issue of God's judgment of countries today. Especially interesting is his analysis of the progression of sin recorded in Lev. 18 that resulted in God's judgment of the Canaanite nations. The series of sins described in that text "sounds very much like the progress of iniquity in the modern Western world," Piper writes.

"It would not be unwarranted, therefore, to suppose that God would bring to ruin the nations that follow this course of corruption the way the Canaanites did," he says.

Piper concludes with these hopeful points:
Of course, history is not a straight line of inevitabilities. God himself may step in and bring to his church a great revival of radical obedience, and a great awakening to the countries of the West. He is able. He has done it before. We should pray that he does. Vengeance belongs to the Lord, not to us (Romans 12:19).

Even if the present rush to increasingly public and approved iniquity continues, the gospel of Christ remains the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). No individual in Christ needs to fear God’s judgment. We may be killed proclaiming biblical holiness, as Paul said in Romans 8:36, but in all these things we will be more than conquerors through him who loved us.