Always be prepared to give an answer

1 Peter 3:15  has for the past several years been one of my favorite verses in the Bible. This verse states “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV)” This verse commands us to be bold (and yet polite) witnesses to Jesus’ saving power at work in our lives. It commands us to be prepared to share our faith in a reasonable and winsome way whenever the opportunity arises. 

I am also convinced that this verse endorses the project of “Christian Apologetics.” Christian Apologetics is often a confusing term to many Christians. Often it is thought to connote “apologizing” for being a Christian. This could not be further from the truth. The word “Apologetics” comes from the Greek word “Apologia” which simply means to make a defense. Thus, the term Christian Apologetics could be reasonably defined as “Defending the core doctrines of the Christian faith.”

Christian Apologetics as practiced by people such as William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Ravi Zacharias, Nabeel Qureshi, and others, typically focuses on how belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God is more reasonable than the belief that God does not exist. Furthermore, these Apologists will try to show that the Resurrection of Jesus is supported by the historical evidence we have available. Fundamentally, the task of the Christian Apologist is to demonstrate that Christianity better corresponds to reality than any other worldview.

The work of Christian Apologists (especially the work of William Lane Craig and Nabeel Qureshi) was very helpful to me a couple of years ago when I questioned the truth of the Christian faith. Their work helped show me that the Christian faith is reasonable and can withstand the most challenging questions of the skeptics.

Unfortunately, many Christian people have a very negative view of Christian Apologetics. Sadly, I think this is sometimes due to a misunderstanding of the word “faith.” Many are convinced that having true and authentic “faith” means believing something wholeheartedly without evidence. Demanding that what we believe be reasonable is for some Christians a sign that the person asking for evidence has a weak and inauthentic faith. However, God has not asked for us to believe in him without evidence. Rather, Romans 1 demonstrates that God has revealed himself to us in nature and John 1 tells us that he has revealed himself to us in his son Jesus of Nazareth. The work of the Apologist is to show that these truths are reasonable and can be supported by the evidence. Faith is not believing “what you know ain’t so,” nor is it believing something without evidence. Finally, it is not belief based on emotion or sentimentality. Faith is placing our trust in God’s revelation of himself because it is reasonable and best corresponds to reality.

I am convinced that more Christians in the western world will need to embrace the project of Christian Apologetics in the coming years if we want to be effective in sharing our faith. Answers soaked in emotion and sentimentality will do little to sway the hearts and minds of people in the information age. Yes, we need to share our personal testimonies of how Christ saved us, we need to share how comforting Christianity is to the human heart and soul, but we must also demonstrate that Christian faith is reasonable. I see no other way to win people to Christ in the 21st century. Indeed, I am glad that when I had questions and doubts, someone was there to show me that my worldview was reasonable, without it, I doubt I would be a Christian today. Thus, whenever you are tempted to dismiss the task of Christian Apologetics remember that there are many people like me who continue to walk with Jesus largely due to the work of those that defend the Christian faith.

 

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The Gospel

Here is a short video my ministry put together about the main thing. Please be sure to share and I hope all are blessed by this video, Julian.

 

Why Pietism?

Recently I published an article on my blog about the renewal movement called “Pietism” that grew out of German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s. Lately I have been immersing myself in the writings of the great leaders of the Pietist movement such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Herman Franke. Furthermore, I have been reading the work of modern scholars of the Pietist movement such as Roger Olson, Dale Brown, F. Ernest Stoeffler, and Christian Collins-Winn. With so much of my time being spent on this enterprise, and with it being the probable subject of my doctoral dissertation (God willing, I will begin doctoral studies this fall), my wife understandably asked me “why are you so interested in studying Pietism?”

Pietism in not a well-known term amongst Evangelical Christians even though it might be the most influential renewal movement of the Protestant tradition. Pietism as a movement emphasized the necessity of conversion, the importance of individual as well as small group Bible Study, and that authentic Christianity was more than mere mental assent to core Christian doctrines. The Pietists firmly believed that Christianity was a “heart” and not just a “head” faith. The Pietists were also people of great social concern. Something of a rallying cry of theirs was that they existed for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good.”

Pietism as an ethos has influenced Lutheranism as well as the Anabaptist movement in Christianity. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren in the United States has been especially influenced by Pietism. The Evangelical Covenant Church (one of the fastest growing Protestant denominations in the United States) is a distinctly Pietistic denomination. John and Charles Wesley were profoundly influenced by the Moravians who were a Pietistic people. It is hard to find a Protestant tradition that has been entirely untouched by the Pietist tradition. It is remarkable that it is so little known when it’s influence has been so wide.

“Why am I studying Pietism?” I study Pietism in part because it brought revival to German Lutheranism when it was desperately needed. Mainstream German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s had become a stale and arid thing. The Pietists did much to revive German Lutheranism. The Pietists cared for thousands of orphans, printed millions of Bibles, and sent out many effective missionaries all over the world. The idea that they lived for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good” was more than just a slogan, it was a way of life.

I also study Pietism for greater self-understanding. Pietist ideas have deeply influenced Evangelicalism and I want to know more about this trans-denominational movement that has deeply shaped what I believe and how I live my life. Finally, I believe Pietism may contain valuable insights for renewal in Evangelicalism today. The Evangelical Church in the United States needs renewal. We need to mobilize for the 21st century and reach the one-third of the world that still has not heard the Gospel. Who better to draw inspiration from than the Pietists? Pietistic Lutherans were some of the first to send missionaries to the native peoples of Greenland and Canada. Pietists missionaries were the first people to translate the Bible into Tamil. A language spoken by many people in India.

In short, I believe that the Pietists can show Evangelicals what it truly means to live a life for “God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.” Is there a more authentically Christian way of life than this? Is any other kind of life even worth living?

“Love so amazing, so divine”

Playing music has often been one of my favorite ways to wind down after a long day and today was no exception. This particular evening I found myself at my piano playing odds and ends of various Gospel songs and hymns. After a few minutes of this I began to play through, and sing, the old hymn “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” This has always been one of my favorite hymns both melodically and lyrically and perhaps not incidentally, one of the first songs I ever learned to play on the piano. I have probably played this song hundreds, if not thousands, of times over my life. This time however, the final lyrics touched me more deeply than usual. If you are unfamiliar with the lyrics this is how they go. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Simple, but powerful lyrics they are.

As I began to reflect on the truth of these lyrics I was reminded of the power of the Gospel. The Gospel is fundamentally a story about God’s sacrifice. Indeed, the Gospel is the greatest picture of sacrificial love that people have ever been privy to. Despite our rebellion God did not abandon us, God loved us, God became human for us, God shed his blood on the cross for us and God even tasted death for us. “Love so amazing, so divine” indeed.

Love of this nature simply demands a response as the old song goes. If one thinks deeply on what Jesus, the God-man, gave up for us so that we might be redeemed, we will necessarily be moved. If Jesus really gave his life for us so that we might be reconnected with a holy God, then neutrality is no longer a viable response to such a display of sacrificial love. It most certainly “demands my soul, my life, my all.”

This kind of sacrificial love demands that I give “my soul” to him and trust him as Savior and Lord. If there is anyone I can trust my destiny with, it is Jesus. He gave his life for me, and he has conquered death through his resurrection. Thus, I can be confident that I too will experience resurrection.

This kind of sacrificial love demands “my life.” Easy-believism or a fire-insurance mentality about my relationship with Jesus simply will not do. Jesus’s example of self-sacrifice demands that I serve him and serve others. There is enough selfishness in this world, there are too many people who live as if the world exists only to bring them pleasure. Many are fine with attaining pleasure at other people’s expense. I don’t want to continue this trend.

This kind of sacrificial love demands “my all.” Jesus was willing to give his all on the cross. He not only shed his blood and gave his life, but he was willing to suffer separation from his heavenly Father by becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This kind of love demands that I give every part of who I am to the cause of Christ without reservation. I must be willing to sacrifice comfort, reputation, wealth, and even my own will for the cause of Christ. This is a great and difficult calling, but a necessary one considering what Jesus has done for us.

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” As I close with the writing of this reflection, these lyrics remain deeply imprinted into my mind. I am reminded that the Christian call is a call to death, death to oneself that is. It is a call to sacrifice, but as Jesus’s example shows, sacrifice can bring about beautiful results. This week I will consciously try to live by these lyrics and give “my life” and “my all” to Jesus. It is the very least I can do.

On Pietists and Preaching

Lately I have been doing a lot of research on the historical movement within Christianity known as Pietism. Pietism was a movement that grew out of German Lutheranism during the 1600s and 1700s. Pietism was essentially a revival movement that taught that renewal would only be achieved in the church when both the clergy and the laity more deeply engrossed themselves in the Holy Scriptures and moved beyond a mere “head knowledge” of the Christian faith and embraced the teachings of Christianity in their “hearts.”

Pietism as an ethos deeply influenced the Anabaptist movement as well as John and Charles Wesley and the broader Methodist movement they founded. Indeed, even today, Pietism’s influence can be felt in modern Evangelicalism even if it is rarely acknowledged or recognized.

Perhaps the greatest manifesto of early Pietism was a book entitled Pia Desideria or “Pious Desires” by Philipp Jakob Spener. Spener was a Lutheran clergyman who, though devoted to the Lutheran Church, nevertheless found that his native church was severely lacking in many areas. Interestingly, a problem that Spener found especially troubling within his native church was the poor state of the clergy.

It was not that the clergy were not well educated enough. Indeed, the average Lutheran clergyman had received rigorous training in Biblical languages, systematic theology, and logical reasoning, yet for all this training and knowledge, the preaching of many a Lutheran clergyman during Spener’s day was dull and ineffective.

Sermons had become highly academic affairs where pastors would wax eloquent over the most minor of theological matters. They would often lapse into long soliloquys in foreign languages the common people had no hope of understanding. Sermons were often seen as opportunities for the pastor to show off their rhetorical prowess with little thought given to whether the sermon would be of any practical value to the laity. Sermons were primarily informational and rarely transformational.

Whenever I read church history, I read with an eye to discover wisdom for the modern church. There is “nothing new under the sun” and a careful reading of the church’s past can give us insight for how to deal with the problems of today. As a preacher myself, Spener’s critique of the preaching of his time got me to thinking. How does the preaching of the modern Evangelical church compare to that of the Lutheran church of Spener’s time? Do I repeat many of the errors of Spener’s time when I get behind the pulpit?

I must confess that I too have been guilty of simply wanting to show off what I know when I preach. I study hard and work diligently at being a competent speaker. I am proud of my work ethic and I am passionate about teaching theology. Sometimes pride creeps in. I’m convinced that when this happens, I am not as effective as I could be. It becomes about me rather than pointing people to Jesus Christ and that is never good.

Furthermore, I have personally experienced preaching that was seemingly just about dispensing information to the congregation. It was like listening to a seminary lecture only far less interesting. Worse still, I have experienced preachers that were warped with pride by their intelligence, education, and rhetorical prowess. I remember one in particular who would not cease reminding everyone that he had four degrees including one from a prestigious research university. Fellow preachers, if we are guilty of this sin of pride in our education and abilities then we need to repent. We have an important job to do. Jesus Christ must be proclaimed! We can’t get in the way!

Now, I do not want anyone to think that I am teaching against seminary education or intellectually engaging preaching. I believe very strongly in both of these things and frequently in Evangelicalism we have the very opposite problem. Preaching in many Evangelical churches is often an emotionally charged spectacle, but a doctrinal mess with little to no good content. Indeed, an anti-intellectual strain runs deeply within Evangelicalism and it’s preaching, and it negatively affects our witness. This is not the kind of preaching I am advocating for.

Spener and the Pietists thought that preaching was vitally important. If revival and renewal were to take place in their time, better preaching was required. As preachers we must daily seek to preach more effectively by presenting sermons that while thoughtful and theologically sound, are also deeply practical. We need to preach sermons that provide for our people practical instruction in righteousness. We need sermons that point people to Jesus rather than our prowess and abilities. We need to be conscious of where our people are spiritually and intellectually so that we can gradually and carefully grow them into mature and theologically informed Christians.

I understand that this balancing act of the informational and the practical will not always be easy, but it is something we must strive for. I want my preaching to be effective and powerful, I want it to be transformational. When my eulogy is spoken, I want it to be said that my preaching pointed people to Jesus Christ rather than my meager abilities.

The West must remember it’s Judeo-Christian history

Recently I was reading through the May/June 2018 edition of the Foreign Policy magazine Foreign Affairs. Although my professional background is in the pastorate and not in statecraft, I have always felt that every servant of the church should have a firm grasp of the current issues of our day. I am particularly interested in how theology, politics, and foreign policy intersect. I suspect that many people who work in the field of foreign policy might be surprised at how much their assumptions have been shaped by philosophies whose underpinnings are grounded in ancient Western theological concepts. Indeed, most people who work in the foreign policy establishment of the western world would affirm that people have certain human rights and that government policy should take into account the well-being of the people they serve. The Western foreign policy establishment tends to assume that people have human rights because all people have worth and dignity. This belief in turn stems from the Judeo-Christian principle that all people are made in the “image of God” and thus their lives have objective value and worth. Many people in modern Western culture fail to recognize the Judeo-Christian foundation of much of our thought, but it’s influence is undeniable.

In the May/June 2018 edition of Foreign Affairs, scholars Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa argue that the era of democratic ascendancy is over and that the world will increasingly be dominated by wealthy autocracies. Indeed, they note that the total wealth of autocracies already outweighs that of democracies. Their premise is a simple one, when the western democracies enjoyed unprecedented wealth and good governance it was no suprise that they dominated world affairs. It is also not surprising that much of the developing world aspired to follow their example. Now democratic societies increasingly suffer from inneffective governance and a lack of unity. Some are witnessing profound domestic strife. Government institutions are ineffective and show signs of marked strain. Many Western democracies are plagued by slow economic growth. On the other hand, many autocratic governments have embraced the economic models of the West while rejecting it’s societal distinctives. Have societies like China proven that economic freedom and autocracy can coexist, and even thrive together? Is their system the wave of the future? Should the West embrace such a way of life?

Some have argued that wealthy autocracies are the way of the future. They have also argued that autocracies are now proving that they can provide a high standard of living to their people without the problems often associated with unruly democracies. However, we must then ask the question, should a society be judged solely upon it’s ability to provide economic prosperity to it’s people? Even if autocracies prove they can produce more wealth than democratic ones, should we accept such a way of life for this reason alone? I am convinced that if Western democracies want to rediscover their vitality and provide a compelling vision for the world they must rediscover their heritage. They must demonstrate that life is not simply about accumulating things. Is life really worth living if you are supremely wealthy but can’t practice your religous beliefs without fear of reprisal? Autocracies may indeed be demonstrating that they can provide a high standard of living for their people, but they do so at a high cost to the human soul.

People in the West must demonstrate that there is a difference between a good society and merely an efficient society. It is time for the West to demonstrate that it’s values are not mere social constructs but are in fact grounded in the mind and heart of a benevolent creator God. Furthermore, due to their grounding in God, they are not merely “Western” ideas but are for all people. Only then will the West have a truly robust and consistent response to autocracies who can provide great economic benefits to their people, but often ignore their God-given human rights. Western democracies have their flaws to be sure. We often exhibit moral blindspots when it comes to abortion, euthansia, and issues related to cloning. However, it is also undeniable that Western ideals have proven beneficial to the world many times over. The West’s emphasis on human rights, which have lead to improvements in education, healthcare, and poverty reduction the world over, are to be celebrated. The West must remember that what we believe about the divine affects how we see everything else. The resources for a Western renaissance are available but we must look to our past. We must remember the spiritual underpinnings that made us great. We must remember that people deserve to be treated a certain way because they are made in the image of a loving God. Only then will the West truly regain it’s greatness and moral influence.