“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.

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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.

 

 

The Moral Argument for God’s Existence

Hi everyone, what you are about to read is an excerpt from a book I am currently writing that should be finished near the end of the year. I hope you enjoy reading it.

In August of 2014 I could finally hang on my office wall a little certificate that read that I had been “ordained to the Gospel Ministry at Rincon Baptist Temple.” However, I could not help but feel a little hypocritical. Here I was sitting in my office at the Baptist Church that had ordained me, and where I was serving as a Pastor, and I doubted whether God even existed! There was a part of me that desperately wanted to share what I was experiencing with others, but I thought I would inspire little confidence in the people I was leading if I shared what I was going through. Maybe this wasn’t right, but I simply didn’t want my doubts to poison other people’s faith. So, I turned to my books and the internet to find the answers to my questions.

It did not take me long to find out that there are a lot of opinions out there about whether God really exists or not! I was not surprised about the fact that there were many intelligent people out there defending the idea that God does not exist. Indeed, I earned my bachelor’s degree at a State University where many of my professors were atheists or agnostics, so this did not really surprise me. What did surprise me were the number of intelligent Christian people out there who were making eloquent arguments for the existence of God.

To make a long story short, even though I came to admire (and still do) the intelligence and the accomplishments of those who were defending the idea that God does not exist, I ultimately found the arguments for Theism (the idea that God exists) more plausible. Now, if I were to present all the arguments in favor of God’s existence exhaustively then this book would be very long (and probably a little boring) so I am just going to present the “Moral Argument” for God’s existence because it is the argument that I personally found the most compelling when conducting my research.

Probably my first exposure to the “Moral Argument” for God’s existence came through reading C.S Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In his book, Lewis argues that every society both past and present has some understanding of right and wrong. Lewis wisely notes in Mere Christianity that codes of morality from different cultures can often differ substantially in terms of their details and emphases, but they often share many important similarities as well. To demonstrate his point Lewis argues thusly

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilizations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and our own…Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two make five.[1]

To illustrate Lewis’s point from another angle, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that the events of the Holocaust were morally right. Sure, you might find the odd (and gravely mistaken) person who denies that the Holocaust took place, but we would rightly conclude that the person who tries to defend the atrocities of the Holocaust, many of which were perpetrated against helpless and innocent children, is grossly morally deficient. The evidence from history and the study of other cultures, and perhaps more importantly, our own experience, seems to point to the fact that some things are objectively morally right, and some things are objectively morally wrong. Regardless of where we come from there seems to be within human beings a near universal sense inside of us that certain things are so cruel and so unloving that no sane person should ever consider doing them. This fact has lead many people, including myself, to ask this important question. Why? Why is it that human beings from many different cultures and backgrounds, unless they are morally deficient, sense that certain things are morally right, and certain things are morally wrong?

Lewis’s answer to this question is that the existence of moral values in every culture imply the existence of a transcendent moral law giver. Namely, God. I am inclined to agree with Lewis on this point. Indeed, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings are made in “God’s image.” This idea expresses that like God, people can reason, be creative, and make moral judgements. Human beings can intuit the difference between right and wrong (albeit often imperfectly) because God has designed us to. God has given people a conscience.

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 19.

Has America lost it’s love for children?

Recently I read a rather troubling article in the New York Times that states that U.S. birthrates have continued to decline to record lows for two years in a row. You can read the full article here at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/17/us/fertility-rate-decline-united-states.html . Why is this a problem? Well for one, the article noted that it is only due to immigration that the United States’s population is continuing to grow. Praise God for immigration! Second, with fewer children being born the challenge of replacing older people in the workforce and caring for elderly parents and grandparents only becomes more accute. Finally, looking at the problem from a spiritual perspective I have to wonder if the decline in U.S. birthrates is indicative of a deeper and more profound moral problem. Has America lost it’s love for children?

Now it should be noted that the article suggests that some women are opting to have children later in life to focus on their careers. They want a family, they are simply delaying starting one. If this is correct then we could see birthrates rise in the next couple of years as these people attain their career goals and start having children. Then again, how many of us have said we would do something in the next couple of years only to find that tomorrow never comes? Let me just say that I am not against women having careers. Indeed, my wife Allison is beginning graduate school in the Fall of 2018 to pursue her goal of becoming a Liscensed Professional Counselor (and make twice what I do to boot!) I believe that women have a lot to contribute to our society and are better suited to many professions than men are. So my concern is not with women having careers at all.

My concern is that when you take into account the multiple realities of abortion on demand, absentee fathers, and continual declines in birthrates, have we reached a place in America where having children is simply not all that important anymore? Are children a nuisance, a burden to many Americans? Is this part of the reason that Toys R Us will be closing it’s doors soon? (Sure the high prices probably did’nt help either.) Psalm 127:3 tells us that “Children are a reward from the Lord (NLT)” but have many Americans lost sight of this and exchanged one of life’s greatest rewards for lesser joys? Finally, as Christians what is our responsiblity as we face this challenge in our culture? What do we do to demonstrate in a loving, winsome, and persuasive way that children are one of life’s greatest blessings? What do you think?

 

 

The Confident Christian

First Peter 3:15 says “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)”. Ever since the Pilgrims set out for the New World in 1620 in search of religious freedom, the Christian faith has played an integral role in shaping American culture. For many, the Christian faith was a stabilizing and positive influence in society. However, with the rise of secularism in the United States as well as the broader western world, many people increasingly look at the Christian faith with a skeptical, even hostile attitude. Will it be said of us that we as believers responded to this challenge with composure and grace, or that we shrank when skeptics asked the tough questions?

Many Christians live in fear of someone asking them a question such as: Why do you believe in God? Why do you call Jesus your Savior? Why is attending Church services so important to you? While we should always be ready to admit that we don’t have all the answers, we should also be equally confident of the fact that we serve a God who does. In James 1:5 we are given the promise that if we pray and ask God for wisdom he will give us the wisdom we so desire. Thus, we should always remember that before we set out to gather knowledge, we must first ask for wisdom from God. Only then will we know how to wisely apply the knowledge we gain from study and reflection.

Christians should receive a boost of confidence from the fact that the tradition we are a part of is filled with intellectual and spiritual giants. Indeed, great thinkers today still mine the words of Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth, for insight on topics as diverse as ethics, philosophy, history, and theology. Indeed, these thinkers ably defended the faith on intellectual grounds in the face of questions from skeptics from many different backgrounds. Leaning heavily on the thinking of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1, Christian apologists have often pointed out that the order and beauty of the universe points to the existence of a wise, master creator. Indeed, Psalm 19:1 proclaims “The heavens declare the glory of God (NIV)” Furthermore, the very existence of the disciples’ faith after Jesus’ crucifixion points to the truth that they actually saw their Savior resurrected on the third day. These are just a few of the arguments that have been put forth in favor of the reasonableness of our faith.

It should be noted that 1st Peter 3:15 is just as concerned with the spirit in which we defend our faith as well as the reasons we suggest for why we think our faith to be true. Christians are to be people who show love to all persons, in all situations. Indeed, the command to love our neighbor is given without qualification. When we share our faith with others we should always take care to be fair and respectful to those who disagree with us.

Perhaps it is only fitting that I should save what I believe to be the most important aspect of sharing one’s faith for last. While I do think Christians should be both intellectually and emotionally fit witnesses for the faith I think it is perhaps eminently more important, and probably more persuasive, for Christians to be ready to share at a moment’s notice what God has accomplished in their lives personally. Oftentimes, people will be more impressed by someone’s account of how God brought them through a battle with cancer, or how God healed them from bitterness and resentment towards a person who wounded them earlier in life. We should also be ready to share our testimony of how Jesus Christ drew us unto himself and brought us out of darkness into his marvelous light. All the knowledge and eloquence this world has to offer fare poorly when placed in juxtaposition with how God can transform people for the better. Indeed, this must be the most effective evidence for the truth and vitality of what we believe.

 

 

A Resurrection Reflection for Easter 2018

 

1st Corinthians 15:12-19 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

I must say that I have always been intrigued by the Apostle Paul’s candor in this passage. Paul does not hedge his bets on the doctrine of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and indeed he unapologetically states that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then all he has preached, all he has believed in, and all the hope he has placed in a future of eternal life, is futile and meaningless. If Jesus Christ did not rise, human beings are sure to sin continually and only suffering and death awaits us in the end. For Paul, if the Resurrection of Jesus is a myth then the whole structure of the Christian faith collapses. No Resurrection-No Christian faith! Paul’s candor about the importance of the Resurrection leads me to conclude several things. Things that I believe still have great import for us today…

  1. Without the Resurrection of Jesus, man’s age-old quest for immortality must begin again. Let’s get very real for a moment here. If Jesus was crucified by the Romans (a punishment experienced by thousands of rebels against the Roman regime) and was laid in a tomb to never rise again, then Jesus of Nazareth was perhaps a great moral teacher in the tradition of the Jewish rabbis of the past, but he was clearly not all that he claimed to be. In John 10:30 Jesus claimed to be the giver of eternal life. If Jesus died, to never rise again thereafter, then what reason do we have to be confident in him for eternal life? Christianity without it’s central offer of eternal life to all those who will believe in Jesus Christ, is a truncated faith robbed of it’s true power and greatness.
  2. The Resurrection cannot be “mythologized” and still retain its’ power. Some very liberal Christian theologians such as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan have concluded that the historical evidence is against Jesus Christ rising again in the flesh on the third day. However, in an attempt to salvage the Christian message, they will argue that the Resurrection can be viewed “metaphorically” and that the risen Jesus the early Christians experienced was a subjective one. This line of reasoning has lead to such jarring (and may I say foolish) affirmations such as “I believe in the risen Lord, but not the empty tomb.” Such an understanding will simply not do in Paul’s theology. For the early Christian church, the risen Jesus was someone who could be touched, who could eat with his disciples, who could be experienced just as really as before his crucifixion.
  3. There is no doctrine more central to the Christian faith than the Resurrection of Jesus. As I stated before, Paul does not hedge his bets on the doctrine of Jesus’s Resurrection. In Paul’s estimation, if Jesus did not rise again then Christianity is deprived of all of its’ truth value. Does Paul ever speak of any other doctrine in quite this manner in the New Testament? Now, let me say that this should not lead us to conclude that all doctrines outside of the Resurrection are not important. Indeed, all Christians ought to believe in the Trinity and the authority of the Holy Scriptures. However, it is undeniable that Paul thought that the doctrine of the Resurrection held a unique and central place in the corpus of Christian doctrine.

As I write this “Resurrection Reflection” for Easter 2018, the Apostle Paul reminds me of the centrality, the wonder, and the beauty of the Resurrection of Jesus. I am reminded of the historical evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection. I am reminded of the fact that his disciples were willing to give their lives for the cause of Jesus. Is it rational to conclude that they would die for a “metaphorical” Jesus, a product of their own imaginations? Perhaps most of all I am given comfort and joy because I know that my redeemer lives and because of that eternal life is sure. Thus I say, this Easter 2018, with the Christians of the past: He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!