Reading God’s Word in 2017

December 30, 2016

Jesus Christ is the hinge of history. All history prior to His birth points toward Him; all history afterwards looks back at His life, and forward to His second coming. The story of this world is the story of the glory of God, as God redeems fallen man and, indeed, all of creation to the praise of His glorious grace.

At this hinge, at the first Christmas, God became man, Immanuel, God with us; Jesus then lived the only perfect life, a life in which He loved God the Father with all His heart, all His soul, all His mind, and all His strength every minute of every day, and always loved His neighbor as Himself; Jesus suffered and died, taking upon Himself all the sins of all of God’s people of all time; God raised Him from the dead, proving that the penalty was sufficient, the price was paid. He will return to overcome all opposition, to exercise perfect justice, to wipe every tear from the eyes of His people, and to establish His eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace.

This is the storyline of the Bible, the plotline of God’s work in this creation. Do you know it? Do you see and understand how God has worked through the centuries to fulfill His plan to sum up all things in Christ?

One excellent way to gain that understanding and thereby impact your daily life is by following a Bible reading plan that will help you to make these connections.

In 1984 I first read through the entire Bible following a plan that guided me chronologically through the events recorded in Scripture. I saw God’s plan in a new light; I saw the centrality of Christ in a fresh way; I saw how all Scripture held together, from God’s work through the people of Israel, their apostasy, the destruction of the temple, the exile and the return from exile, the coming of Christ, the crucifixion and resurrection, the spread of the church, and Jesus’ second coming. Passages like Leviticus and Ezekiel, which I had struggled to read before, now I saw in a new light; the familiar gospels and epistles took on new meaning as I read the story of God’s glory in sequence.

A chronological plan does have a weakness, however: For almost 10 months, all of one’s devotional reading is in the Old Testament. While this is fine for one year, as a pattern to follow again and again, it is not healthy. Therefore, fifteen years ago I developed the Bible Unity Reading Plan. Like the plan I had followed in 1984, the Bible Unity Reading Plan takes the reader through the entirety of the Bible over the course of a year. The difference is that the Unity Plan organizes about two-thirds of the Scriptures into a chronological track, but assigns a reading from the other Testament every day. This achieves the benefits of seeing God’s storyline, while drawing our attention every day to both Old and New Testament truth. I have followed this plan or a minor variant every year since.

The Shorter Bible Unity Reading Plan similarly has two tracks every day, a chronological track and a reading from the other Testament. The only difference is that the shorter plan covers only a bit more than half of the Old Testament while taking the reader through the entirety of the New. 

As D.A. Carson says, “At their best, Christians have saturated themselves in the Bible. They say with Job, ‘I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread’ (Job 23:12).’” Will you saturate yourself with the Bible in 2017? I encourage you: Commit yourself to following the plotline of the Bible consistently through the coming year. Come to next Christmastime with a deeper understanding of how the birth of Christ is the hinge of history, so that you might be that much more in awe of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rejoicing in His sovereign mercy and being steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, confident that He will indeed sum up all things in Christ to the glory of His Name and the good of His people.

[We’ll have copies of the Bible Unity Reading Plan and the Shorter Bible Unity Reading Plan on the foyer table at our services this Sunday. You can also download them at the links. In addition, there is an Android app available that takes you through the plan.]

Cancer Cannot Separate Us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus

September 27, 2016

After preaching Sunday on Romans 8:35-39, I learned via Facebook that Anjel French has melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that has spread to other parts of her body. Anjel is married to Jason French, former worship leader at one of the campuses of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and the author of some of the songs we sing at DGCC. In Jason’s post on Sunday evening, he discusses how the very truths we sang about and heard about that morning are life-giving and spirit-feeding in the midst of such serious trials. An excerpt:

Cancer is not God. It is created. It is creation. It is not self-existing. It is not autonomous. It does not have a will of its own such that it can live and move, expand or shrink, or even die apart from the will of the Creator of the entire Cosmos whom we are so privileged to call “Father,” because we have been adopted into his family through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his beloved Son, Jesus, and are now sealed with the promise of and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

So, cancer does not have the final say. Cancer must obey God. God has the final say and for his children, this will is always for us. It can never, ever be against us. If God commands the cancer to go, it will and must go. If God in Christ commands the cancer to remain, or grow, or shrink, or stay the same, it bends to the will of him who holds as things together—even cancer—by the word of his power. And if he wills the cancer stays, we know and believe he hides a smile behind the frowning providence, for he has written down all of our days in his book when as yet there were none of them (Psalm 139:14). Our days will not be cut short, nor prolonged. This is not fatalism. This is faith in our Father, Lord of heaven and earth.

Do pray for Anjel and Jason. And do read the whole post.

Should We Have Heroes?

July 29, 2016

Should we have heroes? Should we look to people as examples, to show us what is possible and to spur us on to what we can become?

There are arguments on both sides.

On the one hand, honoring heroes can be dangerous. Some Sunday School curricula are based around highlighting certain biblical characters as heroes, as examples that we should emulate. Such curricula – whether by intent or not – can distort the story of the Bible, transforming it from a story of God and His acts to a story of great men and women. Think of Abraham, of Moses, of Samuel, of David; think of Peter, of Paul, of John, of Paul. Scripture tells us of their weaknesses, their sins, and their flaws. They achieve greatness by God’s grace in spite of who they are as persons. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit is the hero in their stories.

We easily slip into similar errors when we make heroes of men and women in history: Stories of human achievement, of overcoming all odds, of tremendous sacrifice, and of devotion to country can idolize the person, overlook human sin, and minimize the role of God.

On the other hand, rightly told, stories of men and women like us who attain greatness can lead us to raise our vision above the commonplace, and help us to become what God intends us to be.

In a new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas argues that our tendency in the US over the last fifty years to debunk national heroes is one of several developments that have put our republic at risk. The concept of a country united not by ethnicity and language but by the idea of freedom was strange, foreign, and new at time of this nation’s birth. If “all men are created equal and . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” then those of all classes, all incomes, and all religions are to participate in government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” What does such government look like? How can it continue to exist? What keeps us together as a people from generation to generation? Metaxas argues that one important element is the telling and retelling of the stories of the great men and women who have exemplified the ideals of America and sacrificed for the furtherance of those ideals.

He contends:

We are more than political ideas. We are a people who live those ideas out in common. Knowing those ideas is a vital first step, but part of how we know them is knowing how they came into being and how they were subsequently lived out in history. So by pushing away these common stories of our heroes, we have allowed ourselves to be drained of our very common identity as Americans. Our emotions must be as engaged in “keeping” the republic as our minds are engaged in it. It is the real stories of heroes like Washington and Nathan Hale and others that help us to properly feel the power of the ideas behind them. . . . By deciding that every potential hero is too flawed to celebrate and venerate, or that such stories are somehow corny, we have done a grave disservice to several generations and to the country. (p. 131)

So Metaxas includes stories of great men to illustrate his point: Americans George Washington, Nathan Hale, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere, as well as Englishmen George Whitefield and William Wilberforce. Washington in particular “lives in a world in which virtue and honor are accepted as vital to the life they all wish to lead” – something we have lost as a country in the intervening years (p. 165).

Metaxas agrees with the point above about the danger of idolizing heroes. He is careful to argue that we must be open about the flaws of our heroes as well as the flaws in our country’s history:

Heroism and ignominy both are part of our history. The only question is whether, having seen both, we can repent of the one and rejoice and be inspired by the other. Or whether we will let one of them tempt us so far away from the other that we have a deeply distorted view. (p. 227)

So he says we should be inspired, even as we acknowledge the weaknesses and sins that come out in every country, and in all men and women.

So should we have heroes? How should we judge this biblically?

Heroes are a lot like parents. We parents must raise our children well; we must set an example for them; we must teach them Scriptural truths and live out those truths before them. We will fail. We will sin, against others and against them. We are flawed. But nevertheless, in a God-centered family, the children should be able to look at their parents, model themselves after the good aspects of their parents’ lives, and learn from their parents’ flaws.

Just so with heroes from past generations. We can and should look to a George Washington and learn from his devotion to others, his sacrifice for the common good, his wise leadership, and his critical stepping away from power after two terms. We can and should honor him, use him as a model, and be encouraged by his example of what God chooses to do through men. At the same time, we can see his limitations, how his view of slavery was shaped by his culture, how his view of God, similarly shaped by his society, was not entirely biblical, and be careful not to fall into similar errors.

Jesus is our only hero without flaws. We must look to Him above all. But we also need to see examples of other sinners, others stained like us, who through dependence on God, through turning away from themselves and giving up their own goals and comforts, glorify Him and serve their fellow men. Our role likely will be less prominent than theirs; our accomplishments likely won’t result in recognition now and biographies in the future. But as we follow Christ – and as we learn from and are spurred on by others who have followed Christ – we too can play key roles in God’s plan to fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea.

So praise God for heroes. May we learn from their flaws, be inspired by their lives, living to God’s glory – and so become heroes ourselves.

What is T4T?

May 13, 2016

What is T4T?

If you are a part of Desiring God Church for long, you will hear the phrase “reproducing discipleship,” and the acronym, “T4T.” You may also be aware of debates within the wider evangelical church about whether T4T and church planting movements are biblical.

The name “T4T” stands for “Training for Trainers.” The name was coined by a missionary in southeastern China, Ying Kai, as he tried to describe a discipleship and church planting movement in which those who come to faith are trained immediately to share their faith with unbelievers in their circle of relationships. The movement that developed subsequently saw at least a couple of million people come to faith and gather in multiplying house churches in a short period of time. In this movement, all new believers were taught one way to share the Gospel, and one introductory set of Bible stories.

Praise God for that movement to Christ. But that history of the term “T4T” has led to misconceptions about its core principles. So let’s begin by making four “Not Statements” about T4T.

  • First, T4T does not consist of using a particular Gospel presentation, or a particular set of discipleship materials.
  • Second, T4T does not contend that if we follow the right program, many people will come to faith and many churches will be planted quickly. Indeed, T4T is not really about the number or speed of conversions.
  • Third, T4T is not contending that the church gathering in worship is unimportant, or that preaching is unimportant.
  • Fourth, T4T is not contending that house churches are better than churches that meet in church buildings.

Yes, some practitioners of T4T at times have spoken as if one or another of those “Not Statements” is true. But T4T does not imply any of them.

Instead, T4T begins with these five biblical foundations. We all should begin with these same foundations whenever we consider our role as God’s agents of change in the world:

  • First, we start with the Word of God. The Word and only the Word is authoritative; the Word is able to make us wise unto salvation; the Word will guide us, instruct us, rebuke us, train us, and correct us so that we are equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
  • Second, all nations must hear the Gospel. We must take God’s message to every people group – not only to those like ourselves, but to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. For “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Thus, whatever evangelism, discipleship, and church planting strategy we devise must at least have the potential to reach every people group.
  • Third, there is no other name than Jesus Christ by which men must be saved (Acts 4:12). Specifically, no program, no formula, no technique has ever saved anyone.
  • Fourth: God the Holy Spirit is the agent of change, miraculously shining the light of His glory in our hearts, thus giving us new life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). God converts people, not us. We bear witness. We testify. We must do so. But only a miracle brings people to faith.
  • So, fifth: We must pray diligently, persistently, unceasingly for God to do that great work. Even the Apostle Paul tells others they must help him by prayer (2 Corinthians 1:11).

T4T rightly emphasizes those five truths, which are common to all biblically solid evangelism and missions. Always interpret missionary accounts of church planting movements and techniques used in light of those biblical truths.

But in addition to those five truths, the proponents of T4T emphasize four additional biblical truths, arguing that these have often been overlooked in the church.

First: “Go!” not “Come!” Our Lord tells us in the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20a).

Too often our churches have thought of evangelism in terms of inviting unbelievers to an evangelistic service, or to an evangelist’s crusade. Praise God, some come to faith through such events. But our estimates in Charlotte are that somewhere between 40% and 60% of the population – including 100% of some people groups – will never come to an evangelistic event. Our Lord tells us to go to them, and we must do so. An evangelism and church planting strategy for a city does not even have the potential to reach all people groups unless it includes our going.

Second: “Disciples” not “converts.” Jesus tells us to make disciples. We are to teach new believers not only all that Jesus commands, but how to obey all that He commands. This implies practice and repetition; this implies looking at Scripture and asking how to obey it, then after a period of time looking back, being accountable, and seeing if I did obey. This also implies continuing in relationship with the person who has come to faith through my witness, helping him or her to become self-feeding from the Word, and day by day to become a more obedient follower of Jesus.

Third: Disciples make disciples. If that new believer is to learn to obey all that Jesus commands, he must learn how to make disciples of all nations – for Jesus commands that! So the new believer must learn to share the Gospel, to share the story of what great things God has done for him, and to lead others to share the Gospel and their story. So T4T emphasizes helping brand new believers to learn and practice a simple Gospel presentation, and then to learn and practice how to lead others in the same steps of discipleship they themselves have gone through.

The New Testament tells us of brand new believers whom God uses as evangelists, such as the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) and the man who had had a legion of demons (Mark 5:1-20). In the latter case, just hours after his healing, Jesus tells the man not to accompany Him. Instead He commands him: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

Many in our churches think they are not gifted in evangelism, and use that as an excuse for not sharing. T4T rightly emphasizes that we all share in the privilege and responsibility of sharing the Gospel – even while we value those with evangelistic gifts. A gifted evangelist may know 100 ways to share Gospel. He or she can adjust the presentation, respond to questions, and switch method depending on the listener’s response. A new believer, on the other hand, is probably better off knowing only one Gospel presentation. But he needs to know that one well.

Fourth and finally: Disciples gather into churches. As people come to faith, as they are taught to obey all that Jesus commands, they must become part of a church. Many of us in the American church have assumed that when someone local comes to faith, that new believer should become part of the same church as the one who spoke the Gospel to him. But that’s an extra-biblical assumption. Instead, T4T emphasizes that we should ponder the question: What should church look like for this new believer? And part of the answer to that question is: What church structure will help this new believer to continue to grow in obeying all that Jesus commands – including the command to go and make disciples? That is: What will keep the reproduction process going? If this new believer immediately shares the Gospel with friends and relatives who also come to faith, one possibility to consider is the beginning of a house church – with the initial evangelist continuing to invest in building up this new believer in understanding what a church is biblically, and being able to teach and share with those he has brought to faith.

Some are disturbed by the notion that a new believer could lead a church. But consider Acts 14. Paul and Barnabas spend a little time in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. People come to faith, but opponents become stirred up also, and they drive out the apostles. But then – perhaps only a few weeks later, at most a few months – Paul and Barnabas return, and appoint elders for them in every church (Acts 14:23). They appoint as elders men who had not been believers for more than a few months.

So the reproducing discipleship process called T4T is built on foundational principles common to all biblical evangelism. T4T emphasizes four other biblical principles which also should characterize our disciplemaking. I encourage you, like the faithful Bereans, to search the Scriptures and see if these things are true (Acts 17:11) – and then to go, make disciples who make disciples, and gather them into disciple-making churches.

(For a book-length examination of the biblical foundations of T4T and church planting movements, see Steve Addison, What Jesus Started: Joining the Movement, Changing the World.)

Seeing the Truth of Scripture

April 14, 2016

How does a person come to believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?

John Piper’s most recent book, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness, addresses this question. The answer: We see its glory rather than infer its truth.

Seeing is central because saving knowledge is more than intellectual acknowledgment of truth claims. Saving knowledge includes loving God, treasuring Jesus, and staking your life on the Gospel. These don’t result from research that simply leads to inferences that the Bible is probably accurate. Furthermore, Scripture makes clear that such saving knowledge is available to all mankind, to the educated and uneducated, to the adult and the child, and not only to those with analytical minds and ability in historical research. So Piper writes:

The pathway that leads to sight may involve much empirical observation, and historical awareness, and rational thought. . . . But the end we are seeking is not a probable inference from historical reasoning but a full assurance that we have seen the glory of God. Thus, at the end of all human means, the simplest preliterate person and the most educated scholar come to a saving knowledge of the truth of Scripture in the same way: by a sight of its glory. (p. 15)

Does this even make sense? Note that this is the way Scripture speaks of salvation: Satan has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But God is the One who creates light! He “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Furthermore, if “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), then the saving sight of God’s glory comes to us through the Word – through Scripture. There thus must be a similar shining of God’s light in our hearts to come to trust the revealed Word.

Piper argues that although seeing the glory of Scripture may sound strange to our ears, there are other times when we must see truth rather than infer it. In Chapter 9 he presents several analogies to help us have some idea of what that seeing by divine illumination consists of. Here we will look at two of them.

First, as C.S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” That is, “In Your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9). Piper writes:

Ordinarily when we seek to have a well-grounded conviction about some claim to truth in this world, we bring all our experience to bear on the claim and try to make sense out of it. . . . Does it cohere with what we know to be true? Does it make sense in the light of what we already know? What we know from experience is the standard, the arbiter, the measure of truth.

But what happens when we encounter a claim that says, “I am the Standard, the Arbiter, the Truth”? This claim is unique. It is not like other claims to truth in this world. When the ultimate Measure of all reality speaks, you don’t subject this Measure to the measure of your mind or your experience of the world. He created all that. When the ultimate Standard of all truth and beauty appears, he is not put in the dock to be judged by the prior perceptions of truth and beauty that we bring to the courtroom. The eternal, absolute original is seen as true and beautiful not because he coheres with what we know but because all the truth and beauty we know coheres in him. It is measured by him, and it is seen flowing from him. (p. 158)

Now, think: Jesus is “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9). He is the standard. He is the measure. And He is the One who is the source of all knowledge:

He is one who can be known and the one who makes all knowing possible. He is a point of light—a point of truth and knowledge—that enters our minds, and he is the light by which we see all points of light. Thus we know him to be true, not because our light shows him to be so, but because his divine light shines with its own, all-enlightening, all-explaining glory. (p. 160)

And this provides us with an analogy for Scripture:

We know the Scriptures to be true, not because our light shows them to be so, but because their divine light shines with its own unique, all-enlightening, all-explaining glory.

The second analogy we will consider concerns Peter and Judas. Both lived with Jesus for about three years. Both saw Him, heard Him, spoke with Him, ate with Him. Jesus sent them both out to preach and to heal. Both are called disciples. Both are called apostles. Yet Peter saw Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Judas betrayed Him for a few thousand dollars.

What led to the difference between these two men? Why did one see, and the other did not?

Jesus Himself tells Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). Peter would not have seen apart from the revelation of God.

However, Piper argues that it would be wrong to say Judas did not see because it was not revealed to him. He did not see because he was a liar, a thief, a covetous person.

Consider John 3:19-20 in this regard:

Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

Commenting on these verses, Piper writes:

The root of our blindness is not that we are victims of darkness, but lovers of darkness. The root of our blindness is not that we are hindered from the light, but that we are haters of the light. We love the darkness of doing things our way, and we hate the light of the surpassing beauty of the all-authoritative, all-satisfying, sovereign Christ. And, therefore, our blindness is blameworthy—not, as the lawyers say, exculpatory. It does not remove our guilt. It is our guilt.

In this analogy, Judas represents people who approach the Christian Scriptures with a mind and a heart that are so out of tune with the music of its meaning that they cannot hear it for what it is. There is such a dissonance that the heart repels the revelation of God as undesirable and untrue. Peter represents the people who come to the Scriptures with a mind and a heart humbled by the Holy Spirit and open to the beauty and truth of God’s glory shining through the meaning of the text. What the analogy brings to light is that two people can be looking at the very same person (Jesus Christ) or the very same book (the Bible) and miss what is really there.

So the Scriptures are like Jesus in His essence  – the Light by which all is seen – and like Jesus in His humanity – the One who divides humanity into those who see His glory and delight in it, and those who are blinded by their own sin.

In our fallen state, we must see this glory – and our very fallenness blinds us to this glory.

Thus, there is no way we can have such sight unless we humble ourselves before God and His Word, unless we seek Truth from Him rather than establish ourselves as the arbiters of Truth. So may we approach God’s Word as supplicants, as needy people, as those thirsting in a desert – and may He satisfy us with His Truth, His Beauty, His Glory.

[The pdf version of the book is available as a free download at Desiring God. My approach to arguing for the authority of Scripture – as well as my personal story of coming to trust that authority – can be found in these blog posts from 2013: first, second, third.]

Christ the Door: The Secret of Access to God

February 13, 2016

[Lilias Trotter (1853-1928) was an accomplished English artist who spent the last forty years of her life as a missionary to Muslims in what is now Algeria. Beth and I saw a new film about her, Many Beautiful Things, Thursday night. The following is taken from the third chapter of The Way of the Sevenfold Secret (1926). Trotter wrote this book (originally in Arabic) to reach out to those involved in a mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Note particularly the clear presentation of the Gospel and the uniqueness of Christ, all the while showing respect for her readers. We can learn much from her – Coty]

We have considered . . . the words of our Lord the Christ, — “I am the Light of the world.” Now . . . there comes through Him by the light the revelation of another wonderful secret: the secret of access to God. This access is the next step to that union with Him which is eternal blessedness. . . .

In the words of Christ [“Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7)], we have the step of drawing near to God set forth to us by the symbol of a door— the door into a sheepfold.

Now a sheepfold is a place of safety in the midst of danger: the wilderness may be all around, and wild beasts may be heard growling only a stone’s throw off, but the sheep in the fold are as safe as if no enemies were there. They have entered in and they are saved.

So, in this new secret, God makes known to us that there is a place where even now in the wilderness of this world with evil prowling all around we may rest in safety as sheep within the fold. There is a place of nearness to God where the devil dares not venture that he may snatch the soul away; there is a salvation that is here and now.

We know, our brothers, that this is to you a new thought. Your belief is that no one can tell with certainty that he is saved until the day of account. You feel yourselves like sheep that may at any moment become a prey. Listen, for Christ speaks of a sheepfold right here in the wilderness, and of a door whereby we may enter in.

Now the symbol of a door of access to God is also to you a new thought. You think of man as separated from Him by the seventy thousand veils; and you hold that of these, ten thousand are abolished at each stage of the road: so that the state of access will only be bestowed by God’s grace when you have accomplished the long journey.

But the door is something different: it implies an entrance that needs but a single step, as we all know in daily life. No one thinks of a gradual progression in entering by a door: one moment he is without — the next he is within.

There is another great difference in the two symbols. Your thought in the veils is that it is the ignorance and imperfection of man that separates him from God. But the idea of a door implies a wall, and we find in the teaching of the Holy Book, that man is separated from God, not so much by his ignorance and infirmity, as by his sin: as it is spoken by the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.” [Isaiah 59:2]

This wall has arisen, not as a veil under which we were born, but by our own building. It is true that the foundation of the wall between man and God rests on the sin of our father Adam, but it has been raised by the million sins of his race. The foundation of our sinfulness lies buried, so to speak, in the sinful nature that is our heritage, but since our childhood the wall has been built up by stone after stone of personal sins, great and small, that are uncounted by us, but counted by God. . . .

If indeed any ray of light has come to you, my brother, from Him who is the Light of the world, then you will see this wall of your sins to be great and high. What then is to be done to find the way of access? Man may go round the wall that he has built, seeking entrance, but he finds none. He may seek, as it were, to loosen the stones, that is, he may think that he throws down a stone from the wall of his sin when he performs a good action, but in truth he only replaces one stone by another, for even our good deeds are full of sin before God, and our very repentance needs to be repented of. [Like Paul in Acts 17:28, Trotter here is quoting a saying of the people she is writing to.] He says in the Holy Book, “In all your doings your sins do appear.” [Ezekiel 21:24]

Man’s repentance cannot undo his sin, and even the intercession of the saints and prophets is unavailing in this, for they shared our sinful estate. Neither our own repentance nor the intercession of others will move the wall, and the sin that has built it must be taken away if we are to find entrance.

You cannot get to God till you have found someone who can take away those sins, just as you cannot get through a wall except by finding some means of taking away that with which it was built

This brings us back again to the symbol of a door, . . . a door broken through in a wall that stands strong and high. If the wall is of brick, you must take away the bricks; if the wall is of stone, you must take away the stones. If the wall is of sin, a means must be found by which sin can be taken away.

Now Islam, my brother, shows no way by which these stones of sin can be removed: there is no revelation set forth in it showing a ransom whereby sin can be put away.

So this is the next of these seven secrets: God has found a way in Jesus Christ for the taking away of sin. It is said of Him,— “Now once, in the end of the world, hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” [Hebrews 9:26] He could do this, for He was of another nature from us, one with God, pure and sinless. “Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” [1 Peter 3:18] “He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin”. [1 John 3:5]

The way in which this was accomplished was foretold in prophecy by the prophet Isaiah, when he said, —”All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid upon Him (that is, on the Christ) the iniquity of us all.” [Isaiah 53:] This word was fulfilled, and Christ gathered the sin of the world on Himself, though its touch must have been agony to Him, and “His own self bare our sins in His own Body on the tree”. [1 Peter 2:24] He bore them six hours till their burden and their darkness shut Him away from the Presence of God, and at last His Heart broke, and death came, when He could say, “It is finished.” [John 19:30]

In those hours God identified Him with our sin in His sight, as it is written.—”He hath made Him to be sin for us Who knew no sin”. [2 Corinthians 5:21]  And so when He went out of the world by death, with His Heart broken, the sin of the world was borne away from before God, and the door was left. [John 1:29] Christ Himself by gathering our sin on Himself and taking it away, has become the Door. Praise be to His Name.

Now see the words that follow: “I am the Door, by me if any man enter in He shall be saved.” [John 10:9] This does not mean only that he shall enter heaven after death. . . . These words mean that the man who takes Christ as his Door can pass here and now from the state of danger, shut out from God and a prey to Satan, into a state of shelter and rest as of sheep within the fold.

This is the rest and the nearness for which you long. You have wearied yourself to find the door by many efforts, by prayers and meditations and fastings. . . . But this new secret is that nearness may be yours to-day. If you have come to see that your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and that you need a Mediator who is not of this earth, then you are on the threshold. Take one step more and trust yourself to Christ in faith that His death for you has broken down every barrier, and that He brings you into reconciliation with God, here and now.

Fear not, for the word “if any man enter in” must mean you, for no exception is made of race, or creed, or state: you cannot be outside that number. It is not over-boldness when we enter in, just as we are, through this wonderful door. The overboldness would [be] seeking for some way other than the way God has appointed.

There is no other way: the sheepfold has only one door. You may go round about it, and you will find but the one opening. Christ says not “I am a Door,” but, “I am the Door.” God has but one door to the fold and that door is Christ.

Make haste to enter, my brother, for whilst you are yet outside, even on the threshold, you are still within reach of Satan, who “as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”. [1 Peter 5:8] Dare to “enter in.”

With one more word from that same verse we end this chapter. The verse ends,— “He shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture.” [John 10:9]

For when we have come to this state of salvation, we can, if we are under the guidance of the Good Shepherd, go back with Him, so to speak, into the world, to help those who are still outside the fold, and to find in this our joy. He does not mean our lives to be spent in idleness when we are saved or even in reading and meditation, but in seeking that we may follow His steps “Who went about doing good.” [Acts 10:38]

 

How Should I Think About Muslims?

December 11, 2015

Donald Trump has called for the US to block all Muslims from entering the US for a period of time in order to keep US citizens safe from terrorists. Franklin Graham says he was the first to call for such a policy.

Let me respond to those calls first by highlighting some facts and inferences relevant for US policy, and, second, by suggesting how we should act given Scripture’s injunctions concerning Christians’ attitudes toward those who do not know Christ.

Some facts and inferences relevant to US policy:

Fact: Islam is highly variegated, as is Christianity. Think of all those who have some sort of roots in Christian tradition; not only Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics – with wide differences even within those groups – but also Russian Orthodox, Egyptian Copts, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and cults like Westboro Baptist, the Branch Davidians, the followers of Jim Jones, and the leaders of the 19th century Taiping rebellion. Those having roots in Islamic tradition are similarly diverse.

Inference: It makes no more sense to lump all Muslims together than it does to lump all of those “Christians” together. Many, many Muslims have no more sympathy for ISIS or Al-Qaeda than you and I have for Jim Jones.

Fact: War is raging within Islam. Indeed, the army that has fought ISIS most effectively – the Peshmerga – is made up of Muslims. Muslim leaders such as Egypt’s President el-Sisi have called for a repudiation of terrorism, and a revolution within Islam. See also this recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by an American Muslim, calling for Muslims to act against radicalism.

Inference: It makes no sense to implement a policy that would exclude our allies in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism from entering the US – and a policy which excluded all Muslims would do exactly that.

Fact: A high percentage of Muslims in some countries hold positions which are contrary to basic American values. For example, survey results from the Pew Research Center indicate that more than half of the Muslims in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Egypt think Muslims who convert to other religions should be put to death. (Highlighting the variegation within Islam, only two percent of Muslims in Turkey agree).

Fact: No foreign national has a right to enter any country. I have been granted a temporary right – a visa – to enter India any time in the next four years. But the Indian government can cancel that right at any time for any reason. They need give no explanation. And I would have no legal recourse. The Indian government did just that 30 years ago to a friend of mine (for no reason he could ever discern); the Chinese government did just that recently to a friend of a friend (presumably because a text message that seemed innocuous to this person raised suspicion in some official’s mind). Any sovereign country has the right to bar entry to any foreign national.

Fact: Radical Islamic terrorist groups are actively trying to get operatives into the US, and to radicalize American Muslims (as noted previously).

Fact: During the Cold War, the US denied entry to those whose ideology was thought to threaten the US. In some cases, ideology was a sufficient reason to deny entry; the person did not have to give evidence of being a direct threat.

Inference from these last four facts: It would be consistent with past US policy for this country to exclude from entry those whose ideology is contrary to basic American values. This would not and should not result in all followers of any religion being excluded. But the government could institute ideological tests for entry into the US. Note: This inference still leaves open the question whether such ideological tests are wise and, if so, how they should be implemented.  Would they be effective in making the US safer? Would they advance American interests here and around the world? The answers aren’t clear. But this country should have a reasoned debate about the issue, rather than the hurling of invective back and forth that has characterized the last week.

Those facts and inferences concern public policy. But how should Christians act in our churches and in our individual lives? How does Scripture guide us?

First, we have a clear mandate to disciple all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). The knowledge of God’s glory will indeed fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). And He will accomplish that through us, through His people, as we go out and speak of Him among the nations who have not seen His glory, and they in turn go out with the same message, so that all flesh will worship before Him (Isaiah 66:18-23).

Second, this mandate obviously extends to Muslim peoples, here in the US and around the world.

Third, I am to love my neighbor as myself – indeed, I am even to love my enemy (Matthew 22:39, 5:43-48).

At this point in history, a large percentage of the people groups still unreached with the Gospel are Muslim. As we complete the missionary task God has given His church, much of our work will be with Muslims.

So what can you do? Here are suggestions:

First: Visit your Muslim neighbors. Ask them to tell you about their beliefs, and then tell them part of the Christmas story. Tell them you’re happy they are your neighbor and apologize for any sense of fear they may have because of the political gamesmanship going on. Look for a chance to tell them a summary of the story of the Bible. Always be a genuine friend. In my experience, most Muslim immigrants will be delighted to invite you in, and may well treat you more hospitably than your neighbors who grew up in this country.

Second: Consider visiting a mosque. Such a visit is no more dangerous than visiting Wal-Mart. Meet people; make friends. If you want to visit a mosque together with others, let us know.

Third: Don’t get caught up in the political grandstanding. Read from Christians thinking biblically about this issue, including the Zwemer Center at Columbia International University and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Finally and most importantly: Pray. Pray for those we support in southeast Asia who are working with Muslims. Pray for those we support in India, who want to have more effective outreach to Muslims. Pray for Muslims in this country and around the world.

More Muslims have come to faith in Jesus Christ in the last two decades than in all prior history. God is working in the Muslim world – and He is even using radicalized Islam to open eyes to the Gospel. So pray – and ask that God might use you also in being a witness to the grace of Jesus Christ to those who need to hear.

 

 

Our Only Hope

November 3, 2015

How serious is sin? How serious is your sin?

How would you answer that question? Would you describe the impact of your sin on those you love – your family, your friends, your neighbors? Or would you focus on the impact of sin on yourself – destroying what you love most, changing you into something you hate?

Sin does hurt others. Sin does destroy us.

But so often we fail to consider the greatest impact of our sin: The affront against a holy and loving God.

John Bunyan’s The Holy War highlights this truth in startling terms. In this allegory, the town of Mansoul rebels against its King Shaddai and makes Diabolus its ruler. King Shaddai sends his armies, led by Captain Conviction and Captain Judgment, to battle against the town. They eventually call for more assistance, so the King sends His Son, Emmanuel. Emmanuel offers them mercy, but, spurred on by Diabolus, Mansoul continues to resist. So Emmanuel’s forces break down the gates, conquer the town, throw out Diabolus, and execute a number of his commanders.

At this point, frightened of impending judgment and seeing the foolishness of their past actions, the town sends a petition to Emmanuel asking for mercy. What does Emmanuel do?

Bunyan’s picture of Emmanuel’s response is almost shocking to our contemporary ears. He initially does nothing, sending the messengers back. They send petition after petition. Finally, Emmanuel speaks to the messenger:

The town of Mansoul hath grievously rebelled against my Father, in that they have rejected him from being their King, and did choose to themselves for their captain a liar, a murderer, and a runagate slave. For this Diabolus, your pretended prince, though once so highly accounted of by you, made rebellion against my Father and me, even in our palace and highest court there, thinking to become a prince and king. But being there timely discovered and apprehended, and for his wickedness bound in chains, and separated to the pit with those that were his companions, he offered himself to you, and you have received him.

Now this is, and for a long time hath been, a high affront to my Father; wherefore my Father sent to you a powerful army to reduce you to your obedience. But you know how these men, their captains and their counsels, were esteemed of you, and what they received at your hand. You rebelled against them, you shut your gates upon them, you bid them battle, you fought them, and fought for Diabolus against them. So they sent to my Father for more power, and I, with my men, are come to subdue you. But as you treated the servants, so you treated their Lord. You stood up in hostile manner against me, you shut up your gates against me, you turned the deaf ear to me, and resisted as long as you could; but now I have made a conquest of you. Did you cry me mercy so long as you had hopes that you might prevail against me? But now that I have taken the town, you cry; but why did you not cry before, when the white flag of my mercy, the red flag of justice, and the black flag that threatened execution, were set up to cite you to it? Now I have conquered your Diabolus, you come to me for favour; but why did you not help me against the mighty?

Many of us today picture God as sitting in the heavens, desperately hoping that we might turn to Him. When we make the least step towards regret for past sins, we then think God is overwhelmed with joy.

But God desires much more than regret for past actions. Remember Esau: As Hebrews 12:15-17 tells us, he regretted selling his birthright – he even wept over that – but God rejected him.

Bunyan rightly pictures Emmanuel opening the eyes of the petitioners to the depth of their sinfulness. The fundamental problem was not that Diabolus was a tyrant, though he was; the fundamental problem was not that the town failed to flourish under him, though it did. The fundamental problem was that the town spurned its rightful king and submitted to His enemy.

What can the petitioners say in response? Why did they not cry before? The only answer: They are desperate sinners, and have absolutely no basis on which to approach Emmanuel except his mercy.

Does Emmanuel offer any hope? He concludes His speech with these words:

Yet I will consider your petition, and will answer it so as will be for my glory.

That is the town’s only hope: That Emmanuel might be glorified through His mercy.

Just so with us. God saves us “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

My friends, regret does not save. Acknowledging the negative consequences of sin does not save. Wanting to live a better life, to be a better person, does not save.

We are rebels. We deserve execution. Our petition to the King we have so grievously offended can be based on nothing else except the mercy that He offers us by the blood of His Son, to the praise of His glorious grace. May He be pleased to grant such true repentance to you. And may He open our eyes to the extent of His majesty and holiness, so that we might comprehend the enormity of His grace.

(A free Kindle version of The Holy War is available at this link.)

 

Pioneering Movements: Leadership that Multiplies and Disciples Churches

October 30, 2015

I write this after spending the last week with an Asian church planting movement that has started thousands of churches in the last few years. The leaders of this movement are humble, with servant hearts; focused on filling thousands of villages with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea; very conscious of their own inadequacies and limitations; supremely confident in the power of the Holy Spirit through prayer to overcome the forces of darkness; effectively organized for the raising up and training of apostolic church planters who will reproduce themselves; and have a track record of identifying unreached, unengaged people groups, then sending workers to them to spread the Gospel. They are pioneering leaders.

Steve Addison has chronicled the advance of the Gospel through such movements, both on his website, www.movements.net, and in his three books. His first, Movements that Change the World, identifies five key characteristics of church planting movements. His second, What Jesus Started, provides the biblical foundations for this range of approaches to church planting, and briefly describes a number of such movements around the world. His new book, Pioneering Movements: Leadership that Multiplies Disciples and Churches, focuses on lessons regarding the type of leaders God uses in these movements.

The first six chapters are the meat of the book.  Chapter one relates Addison’s personal story of becoming a movement leader, emphasizing that successful movement leadership results from a change of heart and perspective rather than from adopting a particular strategy or following a particular formula. One characteristic of church planting movements is an emphasis on obedience, teaching others to obey all that Jesus commands, rather than simply teaching what Jesus commands. The author had to take that lesson to heart himself. One aspect of that change was shifting his focus to training others to build up the movement, rather than building dependency on himself, the leader.

Chapter two considers Jesus as the model for a movement leader, summarizing some of the content from What Jesus Started.

Chapter three then looks at Peter’s leadership of the early church. By any human standard, Peter was not qualified for this role. But he had been with Jesus – and that made all the difference. With that foundation, Peter continued to learn; he developed other leaders; he remained focused on the Word received; he moved wherever God led him. Along the way, Addison addresses a common misconception in Western churches. In Acts 6, the apostles do not get involved with the dispute about meals for widows so that they can focus on “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” He writes:

To our ears, [this] sounds like something a pastor does in his study before preaching. . . . [But in Acts] the Word is a living force unleashed by the living God (Acts 4:4, 29, 31). . . . So when the apostles described their priority, . . . it meant they were leaders of an expanding missionary movement driven by the living Word and the power of God released through prayer. (p. 54)

Chapter four focuses on structures that allow church planting movements to flourish. Paul’s missionary band was not an arm of the church in Antioch, but a separate entity, supported and encouraged by that church. This, Addison argues, should be the pattern for us today, as missionary bands go out in an apostolic fashion to unreached peoples, local churches go out evangelistically to those around them, and both partner, prayerfully and financially, for the advance of the Kingdom.

Chapter five relates the story of one contemporary movement leader, Nathan Shank, and some of the leaders developed through his ministry in South Asia. One of these new leaders, Lipok, had by any standard a successful ministry starting churches among the Mising people in the early 2000s. To Lipok, a successful church plant had to have a building.  Paid evangelists went out to the lost, bringing people to Christ, and then sending them to the churches with buildings. But he realized “he couldn’t build churches fast enough to reach all of the Mising people” (p. 83). Through Nathan’s influence, Lipok began training every disciple to become a disciple-maker. Multiplication skyrocketed. By 2014, Lipok attests that over 10,000 churches have begun in this movement. A movement dependent on paid evangelists would not multiply. Nor would a movement dependent on building buildings. But a movement that expected new believers to obey the biblical command to make disciples, and trained and encouraged them to do so, could grow exponentially.

In contrast, Addison tells the story of 19th century Methodist missionary William Taylor, who saw great response to the Gospel through his ministry on six continents. He aimed for missionaries to be servants rather than masters, founding churches that were self-supporting and self-governing. Yet his missions board was furious at this lack of dependency (p. 92). Such attitudes have been far too prevalent in the history of missions.

Chapter six details five levels of movement leadership, culled from the experience of numerous movements: Seed Sowers, who know how to share the Gospel and who to share it with; Church Planters, who know how to disciple others to obey Jesus’ commands and to become seed sowers, know biblically what a church is, and help new believers to become well-functioning churches; Church Multipliers, who help churches to produce daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter churches, releasing authority to the church planters they produce; Multiplication Trainers, who reach outside their own network to spur other church planting movements; and Movement Catalysts, who focus on developing church planting movements within an unreached people or region. Addison argues that church planting movements are rare today in the West because very few Church Planters ever even consider becoming Church Multipliers (p. 101).

Chapters seven and eight provide case studies of several movements and leaders in the US and in South Africa, while chapter nine discusses movements among Muslim peoples. Chapter ten concludes the book with a warning: All movement leaders will face crises, disappointments, and pain. All movement leaders are weak in and of themselves:

Movement pioneers see cities, regions and nations. They make bold, audacious plans. Along the way they face hardship and disappointment, opposition and delay. At times they may feel abandoned by God and alone. They will also see the power of God at work. Prayers will be answered. God’s provision will come at the very last moment. Workers will be mobilized. The gospel will spread. History will be made. There is a price to pay, and it’s worth it. (p. 164)

Some pastors and theologians, skeptical about church planting movements, have criticized taking lessons from the experience of a small number of movements and baptizing that experience as the way to do missions. They argue that CPMs are the latest fad – and we should not follow fads, but rather follow the biblical prescriptions for discipling all nations. I myself have made similar arguments about the faddishness of much of the church planting literature in the US. We surely want to remain grounded in Scripture’s lessons, and not jump from fad to fad.

Addison modeled how to counter this line of argument in What Jesus Started, by showing the biblical basis for this approach to missions, and highlighting movements that differ in many details but share this common biblical approach. Unfortunately, in the latter chapters of this latest work he sometimes slips into a pattern of speaking that lays himself open to the critics. For example, speaking of CPMs among Muslim peoples in chapter nine, he writes:

The place to begin [in evangelism of Muslims] is with the story of creation and move through portions of the Old Testament, such as the prophets of the Old Testament, before moving on to the stories about Jesus in the Gospels. (p 152)

Here Addison has departed from describing the way Muslim movements have worked, and instead is prescribing the way Muslim movements should operate. Yet other missionaries have seen a positive response among Muslims from starting with Proverbs, or starting with stories from the Gospels. Addison instead could have written, “Others desiring to work among Muslims should consider seriously this pattern of beginning with the story of creation and then much of the Old Testament prior to getting to Jesus.”

There are similar issues in the conclusion to chapter eight, where the author tells us how to become a Great Commission church. Addison again sometimes slips into using language that can sound as if he is providing a formula: “How to start a church planting movement in ten easy steps.” This too plays into the hands of the critics. The pity is that there are powerful lessons in this chapter for churches that want to move in this direction. And as he himself argues cogently earlier in the book, there is no formula. There are biblical patterns; there are experiences from around the world. So let us study Scripture, learn what we can from the experiences – and step out in obedience.

In sum, Pioneering Movements is a helpful and important work that draws on biblical foundations and the experience of church planting pioneers over the last 200 years to draw lessons for today. God is at work building His church among the poor and among the rich, among the reached and among the unreached. I have seen it firsthand. Read this book. Search the Scriptures to see if these things are true. Consider the experience of many in such movements. And then play your role in the drama God has ordained, as He builds His church from those of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

Steve Addison, Pioneering Movements: Leadership that Multiplies Disciples and Churches, IVP, 2015. The book will be available in early December, 2015, and can be pre-ordered today. See www.movements.net for any possible discounts on orders.

Marriage and Gender

June 27, 2015

In light of the Supreme Court decision this week, I will take a week away from our Romans series and preach Sunday, July 5 on the implications of biblical truth for marriage, identity, and gender. We’ll consider implications for us as families, as a church, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, and as citizens of a secular state.

Note that our Statement of Faith Governing Teaching – which all DGCC elders must agree to without reservation – says explicitly that God appointed the first man and the first woman “different and complementary roles in marriage as a picture of Christ and the church.” From the beginning, God defined marriage as one man married to one woman as long as they both live (see, among others, Mark 10:2-9). That has not changed, and will not change.

So let us respond to these cultural shifts and legal decisions with:

  • prayer, for our country, our children, our witness, our lost friends and family;
  • confidence, that God is in control of all things, and is working all together for the good of His people and the glory of His Name;
  • firmness, knowing that “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8);
  • loving witness, for those who differ with us on these issues, together with all our neighbors, co-workers, families, and friends;
  • boldness, knowing that if God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31-39);
  • joyful perseverance, knowing that hardship, trials, and even possibly persecution may well come in the future over these very issues  – but if we suffer for His sake, we are blessed (Matthew 5:11-12, Acts 5:40-42, Hebrews 10:32-39).

Do pray also for me as I prepare this sermon.

In the meantime, I recommend you read these posts on this issue:

From John Piper: So-Called Same-Sex Marriage: The New Calamity

From the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, but signed by a wide spectrum of evangelical leaders: Here We Stand: An Evangelical Declaration on Marriage

 

 

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