A Few Words About Driscoll, William Wallace II, and Young Pastors

The Standard Driscoll pic.

The Standard Driscoll pic.

I generally don’t comment on Mark Driscoll controversies. I refrain partially because it feels like click-bait most of the time. Also, because there’s plenty of commentary on him already. Finally, because part of me still feels some sad affection for him. As a young man (like 19) I used to listen to him and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I learned a lot and grew to love Jesus more. He was funny, he preached the Bible, and was free to download. (Ironically enough, this was the same period that I was also podcasting Rob Bell and learning from him too. Needless to say, like most 19-year-olds, I was a theologically confused young man.) In any case, though I stopped paying attention to him a long time ago, and have been increasingly saddened and frustrated at his antics, I really, really haven’t wanted to weigh in.

This week, though, even more dirt on Mark Driscoll came out beyond the aggressive church practices, plagiarism, and such.  If you haven’t already heard, apparently about 14 years ago, Driscoll used to go around on the internet commenting under a different pen name ‘William Wallace II’ or something like that. Now, he admits as much in his early book and says that under that name he was a little, well, aggressive. So, after some consideration he shut it down and moved on. Well, recently someone took the time to dig up about 140 pages of comments made by him about theology, men, women, and so forth. I won’t repeat it because you can find it on a number of sites, but I gotta be honest, even though it was 14 years ago, it’s really, really ugly stuff.

Well, what follows are a few quick reflections on the whole thing. They’re incomplete, but here they are.

Sadness

First, this whole thing just makes me sad. It makes my heart sad as a younger pastor, as a Christian, and as a brother in Christ. It makes me sad both for him, and for the congregation that was dealing with that at the time. It makes me sad for sake of Christ’s church whose name is being dragged through the mud again. Both the tone and the content of what was said are things that are unfit for an elder in Christ’s Church. I’m not sure you can read that stuff with a love for Christ’s Bride without any sense of grief. Please be praying for his church, his community, his family, and for Driscoll himself. This has to be a rough last year and I hope the Lord is doing a work there.

Holy Fear 

One of the things my parents consistently warned me against as a child and young man was self-righteous pride. Whenever we saw someone involved in obvious sin, or a scandal on TV, my mom was always warned me never to utter the words “I could never do that”, but instead “Lord, protect me from that.” The reality is, because of indwelling sin, I could do that. Maybe not easily, but I’m not so far removed from that so that I could become haughty about these things. In the same vein, my dad always reminded us, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” If you find yourself cultivating anger, scorn, malice, or pride as you think about Driscoll right now, take care and turn over these things to the Lord. Without saying there shouldn’t be accountability, Paul reminds us that discipline and correction ought to be done by those who are “spiritual” and who “watch themselves lest they also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1-2).

Young Pastors and Their Words

For other youngish types in the ministry, be careful. Yes, if the math is correct, at 30 Driscoll was two years older than I am now, which means he wasn’t a kid. Still, take this as a cautionary tale. I know I am probably far too careless in ordinary speech, but now, in the age of recordings and the internet, we’re beginning to see little hints of what it’ll be like on the day of judgment when Jesus says “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36). Nothing we write or say dies or fades away.

Young pastors, I’d suggest a few tips in this area:

  • Read and re-read Proverbs and pay special attention to what it says about wise speech. Soak in that.
  • Do the same with 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  • Go find an older, wise mentor whose judgment you can defer to as a spiritual discipline of humility and guidance. Look at their speech. Model yourself after them as much as you can.
  • Do something similar with your preaching and writing models. Young types don’t need help to be aggressive, and brash. We do need models of passionate wisdom. In other words, try to find more old dudes to listen to. This is part of why I started listening to Keller instead of Driscoll and Bell. Well, that and a bunch of other stuff.
  • When it comes to your writing practices:
    • Write everything like your Elders (who presumably have some authority) could read this. Also, if you aren’t in a church where you have godly Elders who can speak to this, fix that ASAP.
    • Don’t give yourself the privilege/temptation of an anonymous online alias. It’s just too tempting. Anonymity is the death of restrained, godly speech.

Older Pastors

I’ve written about mentorship before, but please find the young ones starting out. They need your prayers, your wisdom, and your help. Desperately. To some degree the younger pastors in the Church are only as good as they were mentored. If you care about the future of, not only your church, but the Church, you’ll find someone to mentor.

Trust

This one sounds weird, but, it makes me trust God. Somewhere in the middle of all of that anger, foul language, and so forth, God managed to save a lot of people and change a lot of lives at Mars Hill. I know there are a lot of survivor stories that tell a different side to it, and the more I know, the weirder and sadder it gets. That’s a side of the story that’s real as well. Still, in the middle of it, God is gracious. God takes care of his people through it all.

Well, these are the reflections of a young man, so take them for what they’re worth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: Given my youth, it’s unsurprising that I have to clarify myself. So, for those of you reading this, please, please don’t take this as my total thoughts with respect to the situation, or a sign that I don’t care about the people who struggled there and so forth. I was thinking about this kind of introspectively and with regard to my own role, so, that’s kind of what shaped this.

Preaching ‘God’ and Justifying the Self

You ought to have friends you disagree with regularly. For example, my buddy Morgan and I seem to agree about very little when it comes to the hot-button, theological issues of the day. He’s a progressive Methodist, I’m Reformed. Our rhetorical styles clash, and our forms of argumentation and analysis differ widely. And yet, for all that, I still find myself learning from our little sparring matches. In fact, often it’s precisely for that reason that I find his engagement so helpful. He helps keep me honest.

John the Baptist--very intense preacher.

John the Baptist–very intense preacher.

I bring this up because one of his big themes he’s always preaching is the way that Jesus frees us from our various attempts at religious, self-justification. Within that theme, a regular trope he’s identified is the way some theological types will use their doctrine of God as a way of self-righteously posturing as particularly holy and faithful compared to everyone else.

The way this supposedly works with conservative Reformed types is that we look at the world, see the way there’s a general rejection of the idea that God is a judge, or that he has wrath, or that he would command laws that go contrary to our cultural instincts, and then push back on over-aggressively to prove our own faithfulness. In other words:

You wanna know how faithful I am? Look at the God I preach. This God is big, HUGE!, sovereign, and full of judgment! His commands are his commands because they’re his commands, and there’s no way I’m gonna stop to explain them if you have a problem with that, because that would be cultural capitulation. And clearly, I’m not a capitulator. I’m one of the faithful as evidenced by the very hard to accept portrait of God I’ve just presented you.

So if you squint closely, under all of our proclamations of a God who doesn’t just coddle us therapeutically, there’s a self-justifying, chest-thumping motive at work.

Now, of course, a lot of us read something like that and we’re tempted to balk and respond sharply. I know I am. I mean, I’ve written a number of times on the issues of wrath, God’s judgment, and so forth, and I don’t think that at core I was really trying to impress anybody, or even justify my own heart, but speak to an issue of real concern. What’s more, I there is a real, healthy, biblical instinct to push back where you see some truth being sidelined, or abandoned, in order that the gospel might be properly proclaimed. All of that said, I don’t think we (Reformed, especially) should be too quick to write off the possibility of this kind of rhetorical self-justification.

I mean, let me put it this way: haven’t you seen it at work in the progressives? Haven’t you seen that writer, or friend, or theologian going on about the ‘radical’ nature of the God they proclaim? You know the type of rhetoric I’m talking about. They might be writing about grace, or maybe some sort of revisionism on a current social issue and you’ll get this string along the lines of:

You know what scares the ‘religious’, right? A God of grace. They can’t handle a God who bursts the confines of their petty little religious rules! But God is LOVE! And his love wins out over narrow-minded, gatekeepers of religious orthodoxy. And if preaching about this God and his grace gets me in trouble with the ‘religious’, or the ‘Pharisees’, then so be it!

Conservatives like myself can look at that and see more than a little chest-thumping going on in progressives priding themselves on how gracious, inclusive, and un-legalistic their God is. It’s courageous to proclaim the message of grace, you know, the way Jesus did despite the objections of the religious establishment. Wouldn’t you have fun placing yourself in the role of Jesus against the modern-day Pharisees?

Okay, so what I’m saying is, if you can see how that can work in the self-justifying God-rhetoric of the left, isn’t there just a chance those of us on the more conservative end of things can fall prey to this too? I mean, surely, if you’ve got a Reformed understanding of the power of indwelling sin, you can’t put this past yourself, right?

So what are the dangers here? Well, I can think of at least two. In the first place, if we’re being tempted to preach a view of God out of self-justifying pride, or anxiety, our hearts are in danger. Pride in all of its forms is a cancer to be rooted out ferociously, but none is so pernicious or lethal as spiritual pride that can defend itself behind the wall of righteous doctrine. Please don’t mishear me. I’m not an anti-doctrine guy. I blog about Calvin, study Bavinck’s Dogmatics every Saturday, and get depressed if I haven’t gotten to read theology for more than a day. And yet it’s precisely because I am who I am that I know this pride is so dangerous and worth examining yourself diligently to root it out. As Jonathan Edwards’ has written,

‘Tis by this [pride] that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . Being proud of their light, that makes ‘em not jealous of themselves; he that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes ‘em least of all jealous of themselves in that particular, viz. as being under the prevalence of pride. -Some Thoughts Concerning Revival

Second, if this sort of theological self-justification is at work, it can have serious effect on our proclamation of the gospel. If your self-identity is caught up in the fact that you proclaim a strong God, who commands what he commands, and so forth, in order to push back against the culture, you may end up over-correcting and proclaiming a distorted picture of God! The righteous God who judges sin becomes a fastidious, contemptuous God who barely stomachs sinners, and so the real, biblical testimony about his tender love can get sidelined. In our rush to proclaim God’s laws that often correct our cultural logic and don’t instinctively appeal to our fallen reason, we may skip over the reasons he actually does give in Scripture, or miss ways that biblical truth can appeal to certain common grace, cultural instincts. This would be disastrous for our witness in the world.

Just a week or two ago, I wrote about the importance of properly proclaiming “Here is Your God!”, before move to “Thus says the Lord.” In other words, for people to have a proper grasp of the commands and be willing to obey them in holy worship, they must know about the good character of the God who commands them. When self-justification is distorting our preaching, we can’t properly do that. For those of us pastors, theologians, and church-folk who care about keeping a watch on our “life and doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16), then, let us constantly remind ourselves that our proclamation of the God of the gospel flows from our acceptance of the gospel for ourselves. We no longer have anything to prove. We’re justified in Christ and so are in need of no self-justification–not even through our own preaching.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

I'm going to re-preach whatever he's saying right now.

I’m going to re-preach whatever he’s saying right now.

My old pastor Mike Erre used to say, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I thought I had one once, but then, unsurprisingly I found it in C.S. Lewis.” He was always declaiming the originality of anything he was saying all the while preaching some of the most helpful, creative, biblical sermons I’d ever heard. At first I thought he was just being modest, but as I grew older, read a bit more, and finally had the responsibility of teaching myself, I began to see what he was saying. When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, theology, philosophy, or what-have-you, almost everything has been said once before by somebody. I mean, just the other day I was re-reading an old grad-school paper and realized I’d been arguing for something like Calvin’s double-gift theology without ever having read a lick of Calvin.

I bring this up simply because I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of plagiarism lately. Most of us in the internet blogosphere have. In light of the big plagiarism scandal with several of Mark Driscoll’s works either not attributing clearly-demonstrated dependency on the work of others, or just straight lifting passages, the thing was ugly. What’s more, recent reports seem to indicate that the plagiarization of sermons is on the rise. Pastors are just finding sermons online and  rereading them, or simply parroting their favorite podcasts, effectively doing the same thing.

Now, this raises a number of questions and thoughts for me, so in the, hopefully coherent, ramble that follows, I’d simply like to ask some questions and raise some points for consideration when it comes to the issue of “plagiarism” in blogging, writing, and preaching.

First of all, on the alleged rise in plagiarism, in general, I’m not so sure. I mean, the internet has made it easier to access tons of material and do that sort of thing, but when people talk about the recent rise in it, I’m wondering if certain things aren’t being forgotten. For one thing, we’re more aware of that issue and people are probably paying greater attention now to it. It’s also probably easier to track now than in was before as well. Still, there were plenty of audio tape ministries that probably fed a lot of smaller church pastors with sermons back in the 80s too. Also you gotta consider that because of the internet, Evangelical book/celebrity culture, and so forth, more people are hearing, listening, reading, digesting, and regurgitating the same voices. If that’s the case, it’s not unusual that you’re going to hear the same themes repeated in various sermons in various contexts.

Which raises the issue more formally: what counts as plagiarism in various contexts? Let’s be clear that direct quotes from other people that I lift, copy, and then claim credit for seems to be straight-forward plagiarism. Still, there seem to be some gray areas of confusion. Take citing your sources in preaching. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to like quoting people in sermons because I want my kids to get a desire to read books, it gives some weight, and it’s force of habit from grad school. Still, do I have to mention Tim Keller every time I talk about a “Christ-centered” reading of the texts even though l learned it from him and Edmund Clowney? Or what if I mention the anti-imperial thrust of a certain Pauline text without citing the N.T. Wright commentary I got it from? That doesn’t sound quite right.

Maybe that’s just a function of the preaching context. When you’re preaching, you may not want to go citing a bunch of names and sources because it seems too cluttered. A sermon is not a lecture is not a seminary paper. Your point, in any case, is to preach the text, not Wright’s insight into the text. Or again, in the heat of a sermon, you might make a point about a text and forget who said it so you just preach it. Or what if you have in the general course of study preparation, and so forth, you strike upon an idea, write it down, and completely forget that you originally heard that in a sermon by a popular preacher last year?

A single sermon point might be one thing, but what about a whole sermon structure? For instance, I’ve found myself, at times, hearing a preacher exposit a text in a certain manner that I find compelling and I think, “That right there is something I’m going to preach to my students.” In the few times I have found that I’m following someone else’ basic outline, I think at that point it’s appropriate to say something along the lines of “Joe So-and-So gave me the premise of the sermon I’m preaching this to you today”, or something even more clear. Now, to be honest, I don’t think this should happen very much because it could become a habit you don’t want to fall into. Generally speaking, even when you’re using others’ insights into the texts, you need to be prayerfully working on applying them to your own context anyways. Joe doesn’t know your people and wasn’t called to your church, you were.

More briefly, how do those considerations play out in writing? It seems that a number of those points above would call for some sort of explicit reference. But what about general, widespread concepts, or biblical truths? I’m thinking, for instance, of C.S. Lewis’ analogies in Mere Christianity and his explication of the difference between begetting and making in his section on the Trinity. Lewis got most of that from Athanasius and the other Fathers but he doesn’t do much crediting at all. Is it plagiarism to use the same analogy without referencing them, or just prudence in not wanting to get bogged down even in the writing format? At that point I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a point when an explanation, or articulation of a text has become the common inheritance of the Christian tradition such that specifying its origin becomes pointless, especially when that’s necessarily where you first heard the point.

At this point it seems prudent to end my ramblings. I suppose it makes sense at this point to issue my own version of my pastor’s disclaimer: if you find me saying anything of intelligence, worth, truth, or edification that I don’t cite outright, just assume I got it from Tim Keller. Beyond that, for other pastors, the best concrete advice I have is do your best to be honest. If you’re worried about a certain instance, err on the side of caution and cite it.

If you have any insights to offer on the subject, please chime in below. This was as much a comment as an invitation to further discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Is it Okay to Pastor the “Small” Problems Too?

single personLast week I had a piece published at the Gospel Coalition on the subject of gluttony, though not the typical gluttony of excess, but rather the gluttony of nice things. I also noted the temptation to that sort of thing present in craft beer, organic, kale, etc. foodie trends that are popular (and that I mostly enjoy!). Well, while it was largely well-received, there were a few nay-sayers.

Why the protest? Well, a few reasons, but the one that really got my attention was the challenge along the lines “You know, you really ought to be dealing with the bigger issue here which is the gluttony of excess. You sit here nit-picking foodies and people who care about their health, but you don’t go after the real obesity epidemic connected to fast food a cruddy foods.” Or again, one that came up a couple of times, “This is the kind of sin that only wealthy, American hipster types with disposable cash would care about.”

What do we say to this? Well, my first retort in a couple of cases was the all-too-obvious “methinks the lady doth protest too much” factor. When you step on someone’s idol–organic or not–they tend to react defensively. But we’ll leave that sort of ad hominem, though likely accurate, argument to the side. Pushing deeper, my question then becomes, “Okay, say the gluttony of excess is the bigger problem. Also, let’s concede that the gluttony of daintiness is the sort of thing that only a middle-class, hipster kid with disposable cash is tempted by. What of it?”

In essence, my question becomes, “Is it okay to pastor the small sins too?”

There is a sort of pragmatism that I find can infect our thinking about pastoral care, preaching, or the witness of the church in these cases. We have this sense that, if the sin isn’t “big” enough, or effect enough people, then we shouldn’t waste our time thinking about it, or addressing it in print. I think this is, quite frankly, nonsense. As a pastor and preacher of the Word of God, I have responsibility to deal any and all issues, big or small, that tempt or draw our hearts away from the Lord. If I only ever addressed the “biggest issues”, I’d probably have to spend every week preaching about sex and money and never get to anything else the Bible addresses, leaving large swathes of the human heart un-addressed.

Beyond that, I have responsibility of thinking of my context. I happen to pastor in an area that has a good chunk of upper middle-class, hipster types with disposable incomes who deal with these sorts of temptations. Am I allowed to address a pastoral word to them? Or do only the majority of Americans, or maybe global citizens need God’s Word addressed to their hearts? Obviously, the question is answered as soon as it is asked. If I followed the logic of only addressing the issues that the majority of people face, I’d never address the challenges that employers, or business owners have, since the majority of people only struggle with the challenges of being an employee. We could follow that logic out in a number of different directions.

The one danger that I would say that pastors need to beware of is using some of these “smaller” issues, or more specific issues, that ding less of your congregation, in order to preach hard on sins that most of your people don’t struggle with. That is a real danger and that’s been at the heart of some of the challenges of inconsistency on the part of progressives on sexuality with respect to same-sex marriage. If you’re going to preach about same-sex sin, you better be challenging your congregation on fornication and divorce as well. And I suppose, if you’re going to talk about daintiness, you better address excess.

Still, that said, don’t be afraid to address the “small” sins. Somebody in your congregation probably struggles with them, others might be tempted by them, and often-times you don’t know the way addressing “smaller” issues will shape the way your people will respond to your preaching on the larger ones.

Soli Deo Gloria

When We’re At Our Worst (My Good Friday Sermon)

This last Friday I had the honor of preaching a brief meditation (13 minutes) on the Good Friday services at Trinity. Below you can listen to the audio (we couldn’t get video), and I’ve also posted the rough transcript below it. I pray it blesses you. 

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

Intro - I’ve always been captured and, quite frankly, terrified by this story, ever since I was a kid. Maybe it’s not something that’s ever grabbed you, but growing up in Church, you wonder at the idea of denying Jesus. I mean, how, does that happen? I always figured that after 3 years walking around, seeing Jesus’ goodness, watching him feed thousands, raise the dead, walk on water, hearing his words, seeing his almighty power, and just, being with Jesus, that would be impossible. I just thought it was obvious. It was an incomprehensible enigma.

peter deniesI Don’t Know The Man - Of course, as I grew older, I began to see different layers to the story. For one thing, I started to get the danger of the situation. At this point in time, Jesus has been arrested, right. It’s Passover week and political tensions fills the air. Sensing trouble the Jewish leadership acts to get this rebellious upstart teacher out of the way, lest he disrupt their power or set off the judgment of Rome. So, they pay off the disciple Judas and find Jesus in the Garden, arrest him, and take him away. They set up a couple of Kangaroo Courts organized by the Sanhedrin being held in the courtyard and home of one of its chief members.

Now, at this point, all the disciples have fled. All of them, it seems, except for Peter. Peter follows at a distance, but he follows to see what happens. He goes further than all of the others.  Peter had some courage—courage and strength that none of the rest have. And yet, when push comes to shove Peter denies Christ. 3 times.

You have to see that this isn’t a momentary lapse. When you read the story, you see each time, his denial gets even more vehement. At first the servant girl notices him, and then later, noticing his distinct Galilean accent, they start connect the dots and think, “Well, of course this guy is with Jesus. Jesus is from Galilee. This guy is from Galilee. Why else would a Galilean be hanging out here?”

And so here we see fear at work in Peter’s heart. The fear that the council might rule to round up all of Jesus’ followers, or especially Peter himself, because just a few hours earlier it was he who had raised up a sword to defend Jesus. This fear, then, grips him with great force and so he denies. Actually, at this point he gets so frustrated to distance himself from Jesus that he can’t even say his name. Did you catch that? He calls him “this man”, and he even invokes a curse on himself to prove how serious he is.

And here, right here where I used to be most tempted to think, “How do you say that?” But now, now, I start to ask myself, “How different am I really?”

There’s a song lyric, by a band named My Epic that goes like this:

I always thought that I would have fought had I been alive
I would have stayed to the end, wept at Your feet, and died by Your side
yet again they beat You down and tear You
Limb from limb
but I keep my peace and my distance

Curse

See, I’m not sure I’ve ever denied Jesus publicly when pressed like that, but the older I get, the more I realize how completely and totally I’ve denied him. Because, you know there’s more than one way to deny Jesus, right? You don’t have to say “I don’t know this man” with your words to do it. With every careless unloving action to my wife I say, “I don’t know this man.” Every day I get up and live my day without reference to him I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time cultivate anger, pride, socio-economic disdain, or lust in my heart I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I chase money instead of generosity I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I keep silent about him out of fear of rejection by our culture, or neighbors, for being one of those “Christians” I say “I don’t know this man.”  In a million different ways, my life, and if we’re honest with ourselves, all of our lives have screamed “I don’t know this man!”

He Already Knows - And yet, and yet, that’s still not what grabs me about this text. The verse that grabs me are Jesus’ words. Peter hears the rooster crowing in the morning and he remembers’ Jesus words.

“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

Jesus predicted this. Like so many of us, Peter was so sure of his own righteousness. Peter had even boasted earlier of his faithfulness and that even if everyone else abandoned him, he wouldn’t. And at that moment Jesus looked him in his eyes told him “Peter, here’s how you’re going to fail down to the last detail.” And at that moment, Peter’s failure hits him with crushing force of grief, shame, and sorrow.

I think many of us know that grief.  Many of us are kept from following Jesus because there is a dark well of shame for past failures thinking “God can never accept me after that. God couldn’t want a person like me.” Or, for those of us who follow Jesus, our inevitable failure, sin, and betrayal can crowd in on us with an accusing weight that torments the soul. When we think of our sin, we feel unworthy and unfit for service to Jesus, or we get weighed down with a pressure to make up for it with frantic good works.

Here’s the thought that doesn’t strike Peter that shocked me one day as I listened to the text: Jesus knew what he was going to do and loved him anyways. Jesus had a perfect knowledge of who Peter was, all of his fears, all of his failures, and how he would betray him at his greatest hour of need, and yet he still called him. Jesus knew Peter at his most sinful, his most rebellious, his most pitiful, and see all of that darkness loved HIM! Not the imaginary Peter that Peter thought Jesus did, but real one that he would even face himself, and he still came for him.

This truth is the beating heart of the Gospel. Paul, in Romans 5 says this:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

At the heart of the good news is a God comes to save us when we’re still sinners, before we do anything right. See, you and I constantly think we need to clean ourselves up before we come to Jesus, or we live in constant fear that this sin, this denial, this season is the one where God’s finally going to throw his hands up in frustration and disgust and say, “I’m done with you.”

On the Cross Paul says we see the ultimate proof God isn’t like that. How? How is Jesus’ death on the Cross proof of God’s great love for us at our worst?

So That We Might Be Known

In the Bible, the heart of life, of goodness, of salvation itself is to know and be known by God—to be in a true, whole, relationship with him. That’s what Jesus says in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is why the most terrifying words of Jesus was his warning to those who were fooling themselves into thinking they were believers and telling them that at the end, if they didn’t repent, they would come to him and he would say “Depart from me I never knew you.”

With this in mind, we can finally start to understand the crushing reality of Peter words when he curses by God’s name and says, “I don’t know the man”–he was showing us what our sin leads to. See, sin is a rejection of knowing God and all that goes with that. So, God’s righteous judgment, his wrath and the punishment we deserve is to give us what we ask for: a life without God, separated from all goodness, all love, all joy, all truth and beauty. That’s what sin asks for and that’s what sin gets.

On the Cross, we are told that Jesus suffers the judgment of God in our place. We deserve death and he receives it. We deserve spiritual separation from God, but he, as the only perfect one who ever lived, experiences it in our place so that we don’t have to. It is only when you see this that you understand that, while Peter is cursing his name, bringing the curse down on himself, Jesus is preparing to go bear the curse for him on the Cross so that Peter would be able to know the God that he’s denying.

And this is the heart of the Good News: we have a God who sees you at your worst, sees ME at my worst, and yet still loved us, and was willing to come, in some mysterious way, in the person of Jesus to suffer on our behalf, that we might know him. You have to understand, God doesn’t look down with shock. He knows it all. He saw it all with his eternal gaze–every sin, past, present, and future that you and I will ever commit and he went.

That same band has another song where they put it so perfectly:

See, Jesus never fell in love.
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

Childbodybride

In fact, he knew exactly who I WAS and he still went.

And this is  why we call this Good Friday. On this day we see the love of God revealed in Jesus’ suffering. We find a God who truly knows us and loved us to the full measure.

The promise is that if you put your trust in Jesus, and what he’s done for you on the Cross, you can know and be in relationship with this God. So the question is, “Do I trust him?” For some of you, you’ve never placed your faith, or accepted Jesus. If that’s you and you’d like to, you can find me or one of the pastors or staff after service and we’d love to talk to you.

If you have, but you’re still wallowing in sin, maybe you’ve been far, maybe you’ve been cold, maybe you’ve been wandering–the invitation is to trust and believe that even that is covered and you can trust him

The invitation is to believe today that we have a God who saw us at our worst and he still came.

Prayer – Father, let us understand the height and truly, the depth, of your love displayed in the Cross. Give us over to trust and faith in your good promise. Let us worship you with whole hearts for so great a sacrifice. Amen

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Due to the shortened time frame, I couldn’t expand on certain subjects. Here are some clarifying articles related to the issue of atonement, judgment, wrath, and love.

1. Tim Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understand the Fearful Symmetry of Judgment
2. 5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile
3. Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understanding the “Fearful Symmetry” of Judgment

KellerMy twitter-buddy Tony Reinke (content strategist for DG and prolific memer) had an interesting article about Tim Keller today. In the past (and apparently in the present), Keller has been criticized by the conservative Reformed for his apparent weakness on the issue of wrath. Based on The Reason for God, and a couple of other works, people have said he’s de-emphasized or sidelined the issue unbiblically. Now, as someone who has podcast a couple hundred of his sermons, I never really saw it. He talks about judgment, penalty, and wrath all over the place–certainly not with the raised and rumbling voice some might like, but it’s there nonetheless.

Well, now the proof is more than just anecdotal. I don’t know where he found the time, or how he pulled it off, but Tony went ahead and found, catalogued, and gave us some statistics on Keller’s sermons over the last 35 years of preaching, using Piper as a control on preaching on wrath. The stats:

The easiest way to search for this theme is to find every mention in a sermon to an explicit mention of “wrath” near the word “God.” No two terms, in such close proximity, better stress God’s activity in judgment, and in this particular search we find all the references to phrases like “wrath of God,” “God’s wrath,” even “wrathful God,” “God poured out his wrath,” etc.

I’ll start with a search of Piper’s manuscript archive (1980–2009). From this collection of 1,232 sermon manuscripts, 244 sermons appear in the search result — 19.8% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.

Next, I use this identical search query in Keller’s sermon transcript archive (1989–2009). From this collection of 1,212 sermons, 159 sermons appear in the search result — 13.1% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath…

Second, the gap between Piper and Keller isn’t nearly as wide as I originally expected, and the gap between Spurgeon and Keller is much narrower than I would have guessed. The gap between Piper and Keller narrows even further in a search for references where “God” appears near words for “judge” (“judge,” “judgment,” etc). In this search it’s Piper 25.2%, Spurgeon 24.5%, Keller 22.1% (though for a variety of possible variants, this second search is less conclusive).

Now, again, I’ll admit, this is an odd search for Tony to conduct. But hey, a man with a lot of archived data and quick research skills can get a lot done, apparently.

On a more serious note, I get the concern. To some it might be odd to be so fixated on getting the stats on wrath-preaching, but the deeper concern is biblical-preaching. The desire, as I see it, is the desire to preach on things at least as much as the Bible talks about them, or as it is appropriate to understand the various themes connected to it. As Keller himself said the other day “the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is diminished if you minimize the wrath of God.” If we want to hold up Christ’s humble, sacrificial work (among all the other things he does and is) as glorious, you inevitably have to address wrath.

(Interesting side-note: John Piper talks about wrath in only 1 out of 4 sermons. That’s actually low for what I thought it was going to be. I mean, not low overall or anything, but, ya, surprises everyday.)

Passive Wrath. Beyond that, the interesting thing that caught my eye was Tony’s observation that while Keller speaks to God’s active wrath decently often, he tends to focus on God’s passive wrath in his writing. As Reinke explains:

…the Reformed tradition has affirmed a fourth dimension of God’s judgment, a passive judgment, whereby God allows the sinner to self-harden and self-condemn (Romans 1:24–28). God, from his position of “righteous judge,” can choose to withdraw his sin-restraining power from sinners; thereby he “gives them over to their own lusts . . . whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves” (WCF 5.6). Keller knows this, too, and chooses to stress this “passive judgment” in his books.

In other words, you worship Money, a fitting judgment is for God to let you be consumed with greed. You worship Sex, then it is a fitting judgment for God to let you be consumed with lust. You worship Power and it is a fitting judgment for God to let you chase that down until it destroys you. In that sense, the judgment is self-imposed, organic, flowing from one’s own behavior, and yet still God’s active choice to give you over to it.

Now, that established, Tony says that his study of Keller’s sermons “still does not answer every question I have about why he prefers to stress God’s passive judgment in his books.”

Fearful Symmetry. I think I have a bit of an answer for Tony. Aside from the fact that it is Biblical as he affirms, I suspect that the reason Keller has spoken more often of God’s passive wrath, giving us over, more often is that it functions as a helpful heuristic tool for understanding the nature, justice, and reality of God’s wrath for postmoderns. Most people in contemporary culture function with a tacitly Zeus-like understanding of wrath and judgment. If they know God as a judge, he appears to be an arbitrary one, applying lightning bolt punishments that don’t fit the crime. Beyond that, it’s all very far-away and distant from our contemporary experience. The passive wrath of God, though, that we can begin to see.

a. It’s Terrifyingly Real.  We’ve seen addiction in our souls. We’ve seen friends become colder as they pursued career to the destruction of family, health, and friends. We’ve seen the misery of self-imposed obsessions with power and manipulation. We know the darkness of our own hearts that can seem so small, so hidden, but then is powerfully exposed at those terrible moments when it rears it’s ugly head and we say to ourselves “Oh, I wasn’t myself then.” But, thing is, deep down we know that it is our self–our deepest self. It is at that moment that we begin to fear what Edwards spoke of:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. –Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

To preach judgment this way isn’t to minimize it’s fearfulness for postmoderns. Instead, it’s actually probably the only way of conveying how truly terrifying it is.

b. It Fits. Beyond that, the passive judgment of God exposes the justness of all of God’s judgments. When you hear Keller tell it, you begin to see all of God’s judgments as more than the irrational outbursts of an angry tyrant, but as the fitting punishments of a Just God. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

When you begin to see this, then you begin to see that principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry.” So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of judgment in the Scriptures.

Final Word of Judgement- Let it be clear, I’m not a wrath-obsessed guy. I don’t think all Reformed Calvinists are wrath-obsessed either. The reason I’ve written about it as much as I have (which, honestly, isn’t much) is simply because I see it is a prominent theme in the text, it’s crucial for understanding much of the biblical story-line, it is currently down-played by many, and, most importantly, it is the necessary dark background against which much of the Glory of the Gospel shines.

That said, preachers need to be careful about how you handle this theme. Be careful how much you emphasize it. Be careful that your parishioners know that wrath is not the fundamental reality when it comes to God, but rather the loving holiness of the Triune one who reaches out beyond wrath with redeeming grace to restore and redeem his creation to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Everything Hangs on a Word”: A Song for Preachers

When I was in football, we used to psych ourselves out before a game by listening to loud, aggressive music. Very meat-headish, but, well–it was football. Funny thing is, sometimes I still do that–only for preaching. While most of the time it’s not loud, aggressive music, but some sort of focusing song by Josh Garrels, or something to keep me rooted in the Gospel as I go up, my favorite is “Listen Through Me” by Thrice. I can’t think of a modern song that better captures the pathos and power of the preaching of the Gospel:

See these ragged shoes?
The soles are worn straight through
While I proclaimed
The king has sang the blues
If you’ve got better news
Then make it plain
He laid aside his crown
All our crimes he carried
Was lifted from the ground
With our burdens buried
Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though a man of lips unclean
I speak truly
What you only think you’ve heard
Everything
Everything
Everything hangs on a wordSparing no expense
He made recompense
For all the earth
The story’s an offense
So get down from that fence
And bless or curse

He laid aside his crown
All our crimes he carried
Was lifted from the ground
With our burdens buried
The shadows all had flown
In the light diminished
He emptied out his lungs
Crying it is finished

Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though we’re men of lips unclean
I speak truly
What you only think you’ve heard everything
Everything
Everything hangs on a word

A word…

The shadows all had flown
In the light diminished
He emptied out his lungs
Crying it is finished

Listen to me
Though I speak of sober things
Listen through me
Though we’re men of lips unclean
I speak truly
What you only think you’ve heard everything
Everything
Everything hangs on a word

 Soli Deo Gloria

The 3:00 A.M. Test For Preaching

3 amHave you ever sat through a sermon you couldn’t follow? You know the kind I’m talking about? Where the pastor is making a lot of, possibly interesting, points and observations, but you’re exactly sure how they all fit together? Now, it may be the case that you simply have a poor attention span and the listening skills of a junior higher. OR, it may be that the sermon lacked what the quality of ‘unity’, of actually having a singular, cohesive point that the preacher was aiming to communicate. When it’s not there, it’s pretty hard to find.

Preachers, especially young ones fresh out of seminary, you must struggle with the task of presenting to your people an actual message from the text, instead of a bunch of rambling observations, or disjointed exegetical insights. As interesting or complex as a passage or story might be, it’s okay to honor the text by acknowledging the inherent of it’s actual message (especially since its author probably had one in mind when they penned it.)

Speaking to the issue of unity in his book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (pp. 46-47), Bryan Chapell gives would-be preachers two basic, but key steps to ascertaining the unifying theme of a text:

  1. Read the text with an eye towards finding the main idea the writer is communicating in the text, or a sub-theme with enough exegetical support from the text to be the point of an entire message.
  2. Boil that down into a simple sentence.

Sounds simple enough in theory, right? The problem is that many of us can’t really force ourselves to do that. If you’re fresh out of seminary, you’re too tempted to write out some complex thesis statement with 15 modifiers, sub-clauses, and so forth, because, hey, that’s what your profs liked in your exegesis class. This was one thing my old boss Jay always emphasized with me during my internship, because I tended to think in paragraphs, not pithy sentences.

Knowing this difficulty, Chapell gives a helpful (and challenging) test for preachers to determine whether or not their sermon has the unity of focus that it requires for their hearers:

You will have unity when you can demonstrate that the elements of the passage support the theme of your message and you can pass the “3 a.m. test.” The 3:00 am test requires you to imagine a spouse, a roommate, or parishioner waking you from your slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon about today, Preacher?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3:00 a.m. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:00 a.m. (ibid., pg. 47)

So what does would that look like? Chapell gives two examples, one of the sort that’s a good seminary thesis, but fails for a sermon:

When the sinful nation of Israel went into exile, its messianic hope and vision were mistakenly and faithlessly diminished because pre-Ezran and pre-Nehemiac proofs of God’s sovereign plan, purpose, and intentions for his people were obscured in Babylonian circumstances of incarceration and oppression that would not be relieved until the Persian emancipation and further covenantal revelation in advancing redemptive history.

And one that you could actually preach:

God remains faithful to his people.

Seeing it put that starkly, some pastors, especially the younger, bookish, ultra-academic ones, might chafe at this sort of abridgement. I know because part of me still does as well. That said, after 2 1/2 years of preaching to college students, I can attest that Chapell’s 3 a.m. test, while seeming a bit stringent, is probably a good rule of thumb.

Realize, Chapell is not advocating for simplistic exposition of the text, or avoiding delving into historical complexities, or even using words like ‘messianic.’ The point is that having a clear, concise, thesis statement gives you a base upon which you can organize all of those complexities in a coherent framework for your people to follow. Whether you state it up front, or weave it subtly throughout, simply having it will focus your sermon construction and keep it from becoming a rambling mess that the Spirit has to work despite, not through. And that’s a good thing, right? Right.

So, pastors, if you’re looking to preach in a fashion that your people actually understand the point you’re driving at, don’t forget the 3:00 a.m. test.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus Vindicated (Or, One of My Favorite Tim Keller Sermons)

This last April I had the privilege of finally hearing Tim Keller preach live at the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. I was slightly worried that after all of these years of listening to hundreds of his sermons, it might not be all that great in comparison. I’ll just say it, Keller owned it. Preaching on the Christ’s vindication and resurrection in Luke 24, Keller does in one sermon what most of us do in 4, without it feeling forced. My point in sharing this with you though, isn’t to glorify Keller, but to point you to the Christ he glorifies through the preaching of the Word. So, without any further commentary, here it is:

Jesus Vindicated – Tim Keller (TGC13) from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If you’d like to see more, the rest of the Gospel Coalition Conference talks are feature HERE at TGC’s website.

Who Needs Preachers When You’ve Got the Bible?

preacherIf you’ve been around long enough, you’ve eventually encountered that guy. You know, the one who basically says all he needs is his Bible and the Holy Spirit. He’s got so much faith that he doesn’t need to listen to teachers or read commentaries. Really, nobody does if they trust the Spirit and the Word enough.

Right.

Well, if you haven’t had the blessing, don’t worry, you’ll meet him eventually. In any case, it’s a very old phenomenon that dates probably as far back as church history extends. It was certainly present in Calvin’s day. Commenting on Paul’s charge to teach the word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:1-4), he pushes back on the same sort of fanaticism of some of his contemporaries in the Radical Reformation:

It is proper to observe carefully the word therefore, by means of which he appropriately connects Scripture with preaching. This also refutes certain fanatics, who haughtily boast that they no longer need the aid of teachers, because the reading of scripture is abundantly sufficient. But Paul, after having spoken of the usefulness of Scripture, infers not only that all ought to read it, but that teachers ought to administer it, which is the duty enjoined on them. Accordingly, as all our wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, and neither ought we to learn, nor teachers to draw their instructions, from any other source; so he who, neglecting the assistance of the living voice, shall satisfy himself with the silent Scripture, will find how grievous an evil it is to disregard that way of learning which has been enjoined by God and Christ. Let us remember, I say, that the reading of Scripture is recommended to us in such a manner as not to hinder, in the smallest degree, the ministry of pastors; and, therefore, let believers endeavor to profit both in reading and in hearing; for not in vain hath God ordained both of them. -Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:1

Calvin isn’t saying we shouldn’t read our Bibles on our own, or that the Holy Spirit can’t enlighten our personal study. No, there is real benefit there. But if Jesus says that there ought to be teachers the church, and that we ought to sit under sound preaching, who are we to be more spiritual than he is? Apparently there’s something to it.

Soli Deo Gloria