Saturday, May 23, 2015

Happy Pentecost, Church?

"Happy Pentecost, Church!"

Regrettably, very few of you are likely to hear anything mentioned about Pentecost tomorrow morning, much less receive a well wished greeting in recognition of the holiday. There will no doubt be services dedicated to Memorial Day, in recognition of America's fallen heros, but scant few churches will even be aware of the other holiday the weekend brings our way. We give a month to Advent, leading up to Christmas, we have special services and celebrations in recognition of Easter, but we do nothing to celebrate Pentecost.

Why is that?

Perhaps, it's because most don't understand what Pentecost is, why it happened, or why it even matters. Well, I want you to know something about it because, if it isn't the most important event that's ever happened in the history of the world, it certainly ranks a close second or third. So, to help you with this, I'm posting a paper that I wrote in seminary that I think will help shed some light upon this most important but unfortunately neglected holiday — oh, don't forget the endnotes!

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Re: Millennials leaving church in droves, study finds

When you sell Christianity as a commodity people will dump their stock when its market value drops.

The following from the article (above) is key:
"It's not as if young people today are being raised in a way completely different from Christianity," said Smith, the Pew researcher. "But as adults they are simply dropping that part of their identity."
That tells me the roots of the phenomenon go much deeper and further back than the last number of years. There's a systemic problem with our discipleship and an incipient sub-biblical gospel and ecclesiology that's infected evangelicalism for some time; and it's only been in the last number of years, since Christianity has been pushed toward the margins of the culture, that the effects of these things has been noticed.

To be honest, I'm not overly concerned about the trend. God is just removing the dross that's rising to the top. And, in the end, I'd much rather have the culture filled with agnostic 'nones' than I would apathetic moralistic false disciples. 

The visible church might be shrinking but the invisible church militant is still storming the gates of hell. 
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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Doing Good Deeds for the Sake of the Good News

In my last article, I wrote about the importance of rightly understanding what Peter meant when he wrote, “ your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect...” in 1 Peter 3:15. I explained that contrary to its popular interpretation and Apologetics application, Peter was not instructing the Church to be ready to give a defense of their Christian faith. Rather, he was instructing them to be prepared to give a defense of their godly behavior. I went on to suggest that, for Peter, doing good works and abstaining from sin serve a broader purpose in the world than merely demonstrating our obedience to God and our love for one another. They also serve Jesus’ mission of making disciples. As a follow up to that, I want to take a minute to expand on the role of godly living in the disciple making mission.1

First, a caution. We must be careful to preserve the distinction that exists between law and gospel. In other words, we mustn't ever confuse our good works for the gospel itself. If gospel means good news and news is information that must be communicated coherently to be understood, then we must conclude that our good works, by themselves, are insufficient to explain the gospel. They have no explanatory power. So, good works are not the gospel. Jesus and him crucified, risen, and exalted, he is the gospel. 

That said, good works do showcase the gospel by making it more attractive to outsiders (Titus 2:7—10).  That’s not to say that our good works add any saving power to the gospel, it’s only to say that our message is more compelling when our behavior is consistent with our good news message. Think of it as evidence supporting a claim. A claim by itself is merely an assertion. But a claim buttressed with evidence is a persuasive argument. The evidence of the claim is not the claim itself, but the evidence is proof that the claim is true. So, good works are not the gospel, but good works being performed by the Church are an evidence to the world that our good news about Jesus is true (James 2:18).

It’s shocking to see what Peter actually writes in his letter. Remember, 1 Peter was written to people who were being persecuted for following Jesus. His instruction is counterintuitive. At least to my thinking it is. He doesn’t tell the church to go underground or to lay low until the persecution passes, instead he tells them to abstain from sin and to do good works. He doesn’t write, “Run for the hills!” He tells them to submit to the governing authorities who were oppressing them, to work hard for their masters, to submit to one another in marriage, and to suffer with joy. Why did he do that? Well, two reasons, I think. First, Peter understood that good works are centripetal, they project a light that attracts the attention of curious eyes. Curious people ask questions and faithful disciples boldly give witness to the living hope residing within them. Second, he realized that the mission of making disciples of Jesus was more important to the Church than the suffering of any of her members — persecution was not an excuse to push pause on the mission, it was an opportunity to make the gospel even more believable. In fact, we can extrapolate from 1 Peter 2:12 that Peter is teaching us that persecution actually makes the light of our good works more brilliant by providing a contrasting backdrop of suffering. A diamond is beautiful sitting all by itself, but put that diamond on piece of black velvet and it’s absolutely radiant. 

Our situation as it currently stands in the United States can hardly be compared to the persecution that was experienced by our triumphant brothers and sisters who suffered under Nero, nineteen centuries ago, but there’s little doubt, we are being marginalized in our culture. And that’s not a bad thing if your priorities are aligned with Jesus’. Because the further the Church is pushed to the margins of the culture the more brilliant the light of our good works will shine. And the brighter we shine the more compelling our gospel will become.  

Steve Timmis has said, “People are often attracted to the Christian community before they are attracted to the Christian message.” I think that is true (2 Corinthians 2:15—16). But that can only be true for a church if they don’t hide the lighted lamp of their good works under a steeple. God has called his Church to be a City within the city (Matthew 5:14). A contrast community, in the midst of the world, who are zealous for good works. The more hostile the world becomes, the more vigilant we ought to be in the outworking of our love for God and for our neighbor. So stop sinning and do good works for the sake of the gospel. Because when you do, people will start asking you questions.

Examples from Church history:

Julian the Apostate

Emperor Julian the Apostate reigned 1700 years ago. He was called the ‘Apostate’ because of his fierce rejection of Christianity and his sometimes brutal attempt to repress it. Julian was smart. He knew that he could not just eradicate Christianity without dealing with the things that made it attractive. He complained:

“Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.”

In response, Julian launched government philanthropic programs in an attempt to render the Christian message impotent.2


“[Sociologist Rodney] Stark notes that there were at least two great plagues in the first three centuries (160 and 250 AD) that actually were instrumental in the nascent church’s incredible growth rate, which he estimates at 40% per decade. When the plagues came, those who were able fled the city but not the Christians. They stayed and ministered to the sick and dying--Christians and non-Christians alike."3

"Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom. The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape."


“Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city and gave bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the Christians’ God and, convinced by the very facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.”


"It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. 'Only look' they say. 'Look how they love one another...Look how they are prepared to die for one another."

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Questions for your consideration:

What are your neighbors’ opinions of you? 

If you moved from your home, would your neighbors notice your absence?

Is the life you live in front of your neighbors compelling enough to invite their inquiry? 

If you were asked by your neighbor for the reason for your good works, would you be prepared to give witness to Jesus?

How are you doing life in community with your church family?

Are you hiding your good works under your steeple; aside from gospel proclamation, does your church do anything else to benefit your city?

Does your church community invite inquiry from the outsiders living in your city? Does your church’s existence demand an answer that only the gospel can explain?

How are you responding on social media to the riots in Baltimore and the same-sex marriage question being debated before SCOTUS? 

How will you and your church family respond to government overreach when the government revokes your church’s tax-exemption or seizes your church’s assets for reading Romans 1 or refusing a gay couple their constitutional right to marry?

Suggested reading:

To Transform a City — Eric Swanson and Sam Williams

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries — Rodney Stark

Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community — Tim Chester and Steve Timmis

Halloween and Gospel Success — Me

1  By godly living we mean abstaining from sin and doing good deeds (doing justice and showing mercy) demonstrating love for neighbor, both to those within the church and to those without.


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Friday, May 1, 2015

Rescuing 1 Peter 3:15 from Apologetic Ministry

Given the rise of Christian persecution around the world and our continued marginalization in the West, I think it's time we rescued 1 Peter 3:15 from apologetic ministries.

“ your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect...” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

At first glance, you'd think there couldn’t be a more appropriate verse to use as a mission statement for an apologetics ministry. But there’s one problem. Peter isn’t actually telling anyone to give a defense of their Christian faith in the passage. Quite the opposite. Surprised?

Read the text, Peter isn’t saying that you need to provide unbelievers or skeptics with the reasons why you believe Jesus was an actual person who existed 2000 years ago, or why you're a 6-Day Creationist, or why the bible is a reliable source of revelation, or a thousand other things that need defending in Christianity. — We need to be prepared to defend those beliefs, but that’s not what Peter is after in his letter. — He’s telling the church that we need to be prepared to give a defense for the reason why we continue to live the way we live in the face of mounting persecution.

Here are a few questions that I suspect Peter would expect we’d be asked by outsiders if we lived according to the instructions he provides in the preceding chapters of his letter:

“Why do you people of the Way continue to submit to oppressive governments and kings (1 Peter 2:13–17); why do you slaves work so hard for your masters (2:18–25); why are your marriages doing so well (3:1–7); how do you and the people of your sect love one another so well (3:8–12); how do you suffer with joy when all you're guilty of is doing good (3:13–14)?”

And these are the answers to those questions that I suspect Peter would have us provide:

“Thanks for asking, let me tell you! I'm born again to a living hope (1:3–12), that's why I live a holy life (1:13–25); I'm one of many living stones who are being built into the temple of God, which has been built upon Jesus, the cornerstone (2:1–12). Let me tell you about him!”

So, contrary to it’s popular apologetics application, Peter isn’t telling us in 1 Peter 3:15 to be prepared to give an answer for our Christian beliefs, he's telling us to be prepared to give an answer for our godly behavior when living in an adversarial culture. And the reason Peter wants the Church to live holy lives and to live ready to give an answer for that holy living, is that he knew that a community of persecuted disciples living holy lives ultimately serves the mission of making disciples of Jesus. In other words, Peter understood that good works serve a missional purpose — particularly when the light emitted through those good works is contrast against the black backdrop of persecution.

When Peter wrote, "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12 ESV), he wasn't teaching anything novel, he was repeating what he'd learned from Jesus years before. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 ESV). And when Jesus gave his exposition of the Law on that mountain, he was directing his disciples back to an earlier point in redemptive history when Moses told Israel that their faithfulness to the Law would cause the nations to inquire about their wisdom and about the LORD (Deuteronomy 4:5–8).

Finally, in Peter's thinking, the greatest apologists in the Kingdom aren't necessarily the people who are skilled Greek and Hebrew exegetes, specialized theological scholars, or Christian philosophers, cosmologists and geneticists, whose names are adorned by multiple Ph.D.s. Nope. The greatest apologists are those who, with unwavering commitment in their obedience to God, give bold witness to Jesus when outsiders ask about the hope they have within them.  

And that's why 1 Peter 3:15 needs to be rescued from apologetics ministry.We need it now more than ever.

Recommended listening:

Todd Friel on Wretched Radio gives a fantastic exposition of 1 Peter, giving particular emphasis to the theme of suffering and the Christian response throughout. (Shows airing from 4/24–5/1/2015) 

Jeff Vanderstelt of Doxa Church (formerly Mars Hill Church Bellevue) recently began an expositional series on 1 Peter. —

Full disclosure here, I'm not overly concerned whether an apologetics ministry continues to use 1 Peter 3:15 as their mission statement (I actually think the principle can be stretched to accommodate their application). I used a provocative approach to put the context of this passage before you, the reader. Persecution of the American Church may be years away, if it ever happens at all. But there's no question, we have been marginalized. And Peter's instruction to the marginalized Church in America today is the same instruction he delivered to our triumphant brothers and sisters who suffered under the hand of Nero, nineteen centuries ago; abstain from doing evil, do good works, and be prepared to defend the reason why you're living such an extraordinary and unexpected life in an antagonistic culture.
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