Monday, September 19, 2016

Augustine on Ephesians 5:16

From Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 366.
Ephesians 5:16 "...making the best use of the time, because the days are evil." 
But as concerning these days which we are passing now, the Apostle says, “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Are not these days indeed evil which we spend in this corruptible flesh, in or under so heavy a load of the corruptible body, amid so great temptations, amid so great difficulties, where there is but false pleasure, no security of joy, a tormenting fear, a greedy covetousness, a withering sadness? Lo, what evil days! yet no one is willing to end these same evil days, and hence men earnestly pray God that they may live long. Yet what is it to live long, but to be long tormented? What is it to live long, but to add evil days to evil days? When boys are growing up, it is as if days are being added to them; whereas they do not know that they are being diminished; and their very reckoning is false. For as we grow up, the number of our days rather diminishes than increases. Appoint for any man at his birth, for instance, eighty years; every day he lives, he diminishes somewhat of that sum. Yet silly men rejoice at the oft-recurring birthdays, both of themselves and their children. O sensible man! If the wine in thy bottle is diminished, thou art sad; days art thou losing, and art thou glad? These days then are evil; and so much the more evil, in that they are loved. This world is so alluring, that no one is willing to finish a life of sorrow. For the true, the blessed life is this, when we shall rise again, and reign with Christ. For the ungodly too shall rise again, but to go into the fire. Life then is there none but that which is blessed. And blessed life there can be none but that which is eternal, where are “good days;” and those not many days, but one day. They are called “days” after the custom of this life. That day knows no rising, it knows no setting. To that day there succeeds no to-morrow; because no yesterday precedes it. This day, or these days, and this life, this true life, have we in promise. It is then the reward of a certain work. So if we love the reward, let us not fail in the work; and so shall we reign with Christ for ever.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Spiritually, you are what you eat

Have you ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”? Nutritionists and health experts tell us this all the time, “you are what you eat!”

If you’ve read the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or have seen the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory then you will undoubtedly remember this principle demonstrated in the life of a character named Violet Beauregard. In this story, one spoiled girl who must have everything she wants, takes a very special piece of gum at the Chocolate Factory, one which has the flavors of a full meal (tomato soup, roast beef with baked potato, and blueberry pie with ice cream). However, Willy Wonka forbids her to eat this gum because it has a particular problem - when it comes to the dessert flavor, blueberry cobbler, the person chewing it literally becomes what they are eating - in this case, a blueberry! In fact, Violet chews the faulty gum, and right on cue, she starts turning purple and becomes plump like a blueberry. She is only able to waddle a little bit due to her girth, and Willy Wonka tells the Oompa Loompas to roll her to the juicing room so she can be squeezed and the pressure of all that blueberry juice can be relieved.

Well, in a very silly way I suppose, that story demonstrates something that we already know - that our appetites can get the best of us, and what we hunger for and what we consume, will change us. In other words, “we are what we eat.” 

Did you know that the same thing is true spiritually? In teaching the values of God’s kingdom, Jesus once explained that in our spiritual lives, we are what we eat. In other words, what our spirits hunger for, what our spirits most desire, will change us. You see, Jesus knew that if we hunger for the wrongs things, our lives can go tragically wrong. Lucifer, once a great angel of God, had hungered too much for power; Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, had hungered too much for praise; and in the NT, Jesus told the story of the rich fool, who had hungered too much for pleasure. Because they hungered for wrong things and rejected God’s good things, they forfeited both. But even as it is true that we can hunger and desire after the wrong things, it is also true that we can hunger after the right things! Jesus tells us this in Matthew 5:6,

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

I want us to consider why a spiritual hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness is the most important desire of our hearts. Let us consider three reasons why a thirsting after God’s righteousness is our most important decision of all.

1. We Have a Deep Need for God’s Righteousness. In fact, the Bible teaches us that we need righteousness to get into God’s kingdom and to live in Heaven. Now, the word “righteous” simply means, “characterized by what is right.” So, what the Bible teaches is that there is a standard for what is right and we need to meet it in order to belong in God’s Kingdom. Now, this talk about “standards” and “rightness”reminds me of the story of…
…the man who arrives at the gates of Heaven and is greeted by the Apostle Peter. Peter greets the new arrival and begins leafing through his book to see if the man is worthy of entry. Peter goes through the book several times and says to the man in a flustered tone. “You know I can’t seem to find anything you did really great in your life. But I can’t find that you really did anything bad either.” “I’ll tell you what, Peter continues. “If you can tell me of one really good deed you did in your life, then you’re in.”
So the man thought and thought. Finally the man said, “Well there was the time I was driving down the highway and I saw a group of biker guys gathered around this frightened girl. I slowed my car down and sure enough, it didn’t look good. There were about 20 of them tormenting this poor girl.” “I got out of my car, grabbed my tire iron and walked straight up to the leader of the gang. He was a huge man with a studded jacket and a chain running from his nose to his ear. I noticed the gang had circled around me, yet I still felt brave. I ripped the chain from the leader’s face and hit him over the head with the tire iron. I yelled to the gang, leave this poor, innocent girl alone. You are all a bunch of deranged animals. Now go home before I teach all of you a lesson.”
Impressed, Peter asked, “Wow, When did that happen?” 
“Oh, about two minutes ago,” the man said.
You know, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a terrible joke, but did you catch the problem with it? It suggests that the standard for righteousness is the goodness of the deeds that we do. But the actual standard for rightness is the will and the holiness of God. Yes, we do right things, we think right things, and we say right things. But all our rightness is like filthy rags (Is. 64:5–7). Jesus says in Matthew 5:20, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wow, we say, is there any hope then? Yes of course, but only as we hunger after the perfect Righteousness of Jesus Christ.

2. We Must Hunger for the Righteousness of God, Not Something Else. C. S. Lewis once  observed that our problem is not that our cravings are often too big, but that our cravings are often so small and easily satisfied with lesser things. In other words, our desires tend to favor things like food, drink, and clothing. Or we crave power, pleasure, prestige and possessions. But you see, our cravings are far too small when we focus on these earthly things.

Now to correct things, we often assume that we must get a control on our cravings and just kill them altogether if we are going to be righteous. But you know, the reality of true satisfaction is not in the denial of our cravings, but in redirecting them from small things to the One Great Thing, to God Himself.

Now, just a moment’s reflection will show why this must be so. You see, it’s because God is the source of all good things: fortune, fame, success, or even happiness itself. In the NT, James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). 

So our hearts must be redirected. And the only way we can enter into fellowship with God and find the happiness and blessing we so long for is to possess a righteousness and holiness that will commend us to God. But can this be done? Well, the answer is YES! Yes, our hearts and our desires can be shifted. But of course not by us, certainly. But God can and will do it. The heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that in Jesus Christ, God has obtained our redemption and provided all who believe in Christ with the righteousness I’ve been speaking of. The Bible says that Jesus Christ “has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

3. When We Hunger and Thirst for God’s Righteousness, We Shall Be Filled. 

The great Church Father, Augustine once said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” 

Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” My friends, don’t mistake the promise of God: those who hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness shall be filled.

You know, spiritually speaking, what the nutritionists say is true: we are what we eat. So you and I have a choice this morning. We can be satisfied with the righteousness of the world and all the enticements it offers. We can try to satisfy ourselves on the small things. But be warned: the world’s righteousness and the world’s ”stuff” can be compared to drinking salt water; if you drink it, the salt water simply increases your thirst and dehydrates you, eventually leading to your death. Yes, it will wet your dry lips, and yes it will moisten your parched throat, but it will not truly satisfy the needs of your body…or more importantly, your soul.

Meaning, the other choice, the better choice, is that we will choose to be satisfied with nothing less than Jesus’ blood and His righteousness. My friends, let your hunger and thirst for Jesus’ righteousness shape you into the image and likeness of Christ. You are what you eat! And Jesus’ promise is that when you seek after Him, you will be satisfied, your heart’s desire will be filled in Him. He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” What a promise Christ has given us!

Monday, August 29, 2016

What is Experiential Preaching?

This excerpt is taken from Joel Beeke’s contribution in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching. Lord willing, Dr. Beeke will be one of my professors next year when I begin further graduate work at PRTS.
Experiential (or “experimental”) preaching addresses the vital matter of how a Christian experiences the truth of Christian doctrine in his life. The term experimental comes from the Latin experimentum, meaning trial. It is derived from the verb experior, meaning “to try, prove, or put to the test.” That same verb can also mean “to find or know by experience,” thus leading to the word experientia, meaning knowledge gained by experiment. John Calvin used the terms experiential and experimental interchangeably, since both words in biblical preaching indicate the need for measuring experienced knowledge against the touchstone of Scripture.
Experiential preaching stresses the need to know by experience the great truths of the Word of God. A working definition of experiential preaching might be: “Preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the goal of the Christian life.” Such preaching aims to apply divine truth to the whole range of the believer’s personal experience, including his relationships with family, the church, and the world around him.
Paul Helm writes about such preaching:
The situation [today] calls for preaching that will cover the full range of Christian experience, and a developed experimental theology. The preaching must give guidance and instruction to Christians in terms of their actual experience. It must not deal in unrealities or treat congregations as if they lived in a different century or in wholly different circumstances. This involves taking the full measure of our modern situation and entering with full sympathy into the actual experiences, the hopes and fears, of Christian people.
Experiential preaching is discriminatory. It clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, opening the kingdom of heaven to one and shutting it against the other. Discriminatory preaching offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who by a true faith embrace Christ as Savior and Lord, but it also proclaims the wrath of God and His eternal condemnation upon those who are unbelieving, unrepentant, and unconverted. Such preaching teaches that unless our religion is experiential, we will perish—not because experience itself saves, but because the Christ who saves sinners must be experienced personally as the foundation upon which our lives are built (Matt. 7:22–27; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2).
Experiential preaching is applicatory. It applies the text to every aspect of a listener’s life, promoting a religion that is truly a power and not a mere form (2 Tim. 3:5). Robert Burns defined such religion as “Christianity brought home to men’s business and bosoms,” and said the principle on which it rests is “that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied.”
Experiential preaching, then, teaches that the Christian faith must be experienced, tasted, and lived through the saving power of the Holy Spirit. It stresses the knowledge of scriptural truth that is able “to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).3 Specifically, such preaching teaches that Christ, who is the living Word (John 1:1) and the very embodiment of the truth, must be experientially known and embraced. It proclaims the need for sinners to experience who God is in His Son. As John 17:3 says, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” The word know in this text, as well as in other biblical usages, does not indicate casual acquaintance, but a deep, abiding relationship. For example, Genesis 4:1a uses the word know to suggest marital intimacy: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.” Experiential preaching stresses the intimate, personal knowledge of God in Christ.”
Such knowledge is never divorced from Scripture. According to Isaiah 8:20, all of our beliefs, including our experiences, must be tested against the Bible. That is really what the word experimental, derived from experiment, intends to convey. Just as a scientific experiment involves testing a hypothesis against a body of evidence, so experimental preaching involves examining experience in the light of the teaching of the Word of God.
Reformed experiential preaching, grounded in the Word of God, is theocentric rather than anthropocentric. Some people accuse the Puritans of being man-centered in their passion for godly experience. But as J. I. Packer argues, the Puritans were not interested in tracing the experience of the Spirit’s work in their souls to promote their own experience, but to be driven out of themselves into Christ, in whom they could then enter into fellowship with the triune God.
This passion for fellowship with the triune God means that experiential preaching not only addresses the believer’s conscience, but also his relationship with others in the church and the world. If experiential preaching led me only to examine my experiences and my relationship with God, it would fall short of affecting my interaction with family, church members, and society. It would remain self-centered. True experiential preaching brings a believer into the realm of vital Christian experience, prompting a love for God and His glory as well as a burning passion to declare and display that love to others around him. A believer so instructed cannot help but be evangelistic, since vital experience and a heart for missions are inseparable.
In sum, Reformed experiential preaching addresses the entire range of Christian living. With the Spirit’s blessing, its mission is to transform the believer in all that he is and does so that he becomes more and more like the Savior.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Land Flowing With...Porn and Heroin?

Being a minister means being an observer of culture. Kind of like "people watching" at the airport, but in a more comprehensive (think societal) and spiritual way. Which is why I am interested in two cultural insights making the rounds right now. 

The first is the announcement of a Barna Group research project called The Porn Phenomenon, (you can read a summary of the 150-page report here) -- a new nationwide study about pornography. It is a massive research project examining teenagers, young adults, and Americans in general as well as ministers and youth ministers – more than 3,000 interviews in total across a range of questions. The results of the study are sobering and support what many of us already suspected...that pornography is a HUGE problem. Do read the summary here to get up to speed. Take home for ministers is that we have a problem with porn, as do our church members, and there needs to be biblical, helpful teaching on biblical sexuality which takes into account the prevalence of porn in the sexual lives of our people. We have to help people beat this addiction and understand that pornography use is sin.

The second item of note is our country's HUGE (there's that word again) heroin (and opiate) addiction. The faces of heroin include the young, middle-to-upper class and suburban. It is THE major drug problem in the United States. What was once thought of as an inner-city problem is now a national epidemic and heroin use is showing up everywhere, including high schools. The reasons for the rise of the epidemic are very interesting, and are chronicled in a significant newer book titled Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. To get a flavor for what Dreamland records, you can watch the most recent 60 Minutes segment which focused on heroin use in small-town America. They focused mostly on Ohio. What's so striking about it all is how pervasive the problem is and how many folks around us are likely affected by it. Case in point, one of the young women interviewed - a fresh-faced young suburban Ohio woman and recovering heroin addict who told 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker about shooting up in the high school bathroom. Her name is Hannah Morris. It started with pot, then went to pills, then to smoking heroin, then shooting it up:
Bill Whitaker: So you were what, 15?
Hannah Morris: Yeah. And I was like, oh my gosh that was amazing.
Bill Whitaker: You remember it even now?
Hannah Morris: Oh yeah. Let’s say I’ve never done a drug in my life. I would normally be happiness at a six or a seven, at a scale out of 10, you know. And then you take heroin and you’re automatically at a 26. And you’re like, I want that again.
Hannah says the heroin was so addictive that rather quickly she and several other students went from smoking it at parties to shooting it up at high school.
Hannah Morris: Like, doing it at school in the bathroom.
Bill Whitaker: A syringe?
Hannah Morris: A syringe. I would have it in my purse, all ready to go.
Why the interest on my part? Because I want to reach our culture with the gospel, to see the captives set free in Jesus Christ. And this is us. A land flowing with milk and honey but also porn and heroin. And not only are these medical and addiction problems, they are ultimately spiritual problems. If this is the country we've become, what will the Church do?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is Preaching Still Important?

Let me cut to the chase - is preaching still important? - yes, of course it is! And yet, in many congregations, preaching has fallen on hard times.

It was not always this way. If you were to go to Europe and visit many of the churches which were grown or influenced by the Protestant Reformation, you would be struck by the large, ornate pulpits that are centrally located and which dominate their sanctuaries. The placement of these pulpits spoke eloquently of the centrality and indispensability of the preaching of the Word to communicate Christ and his saving work to his people. 

The Reformation’s restoration of preaching to the center of Christian worship and life could not have been more dramatically illustrated. If the worship of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church was focused upon the altar and the sacrament of the mass, the worship of the churches of the Reformation was focused upon the pulpit. Christ’s dwelling in the midst of his people was understood to be primarily mediated through the proclamation of the gospel, and only secondarily through the administration of the sacrament.

But we face challenging times in Protestant churches today. We are witnessing the final demise of theological liberalism, the rise of Pentecostalism, the quick rise and fall of the emerging church movement, the breakdown of evangelicalism, and an utter discombobulation about how the church is to conduct its life and ministry in an increasing “post-Christian” culture. All around us, in the name of reaching the culture with the gospel, we see evangelical churches compromising (usually without intending to) in both message and methods. This has affected preaching dramatically. The fundamental assumption underlying these new approaches is that “everything has changed,” and so our methods must change.

The Reformation’s view of preaching has been seriously challenged in recent years. On the one hand, there is a spirit of democratization and egalitarianism that chafes at the notion of an ordained ministry whose administration of the Word of God in preaching has a place of pre-eminence in the church. When this spirit captivates the churches, all of the members alike become equally “ministers” of the Word of God, the ministers of the Word being only a specialized expression of a more general activity. And on the other hand, there is a growing prejudice that preaching no longer serves as an effective means of communicating the gospel. This prejudice can give birth to an almost endless proliferation of new devices or strategies for preaching the gospel—alternatives to preaching in drama, music and other, sometimes esoteric, worship practices. The only common thread holding these devices together is that they constitute an alternative to preaching. The sorry image of preaching today can easily be illustrated by noting that the expression, “to preach to (at) someone,” is generally thought to be objectionable.

And yet, more than ever, we need to re-affirm a commitment to an “ordinary means” approach to church life and ministry which says the gospel "works" and God has given us both the method and the message. This is vitally important in a time where one of the dominant storylines in churches has been that of alternative methods unwittingly, unhelpfully, and unbiblically altering both the message and the ministry.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry is ministry that focuses on doing the things God, in the Bible, says are central to the spiritual health and growth of His people, and which aims to see the qualities and priorities of the church reflect biblical norms. Hence, God has given us both the message of salvation and the means of gathering and building the church, in His Word. 

However important understanding our context or the times may be, the ordinary means approach to ministry is first and foremost concerned with biblical fidelity. Because faithfulness is relevance. The gospel is the message and the local church is the plan. God has given to his church spiritual weapons for the bringing down of strongholds. These ordinary means of grace are the Word, sacraments (the Lord's Supper and Baptism), and prayer. 

Ordinary means ministry believes that the key things that the church can do in order to help people know God and grow in their knowledge of God are: First, emphasize the public reading and preaching of the Word; second, emphasize the confirming, sanctifying and assuring efficacy of the Lord's Supper and Baptism, publicly administered; and third, emphasize a life of prayer, especially expressed corporately in the church. These things are central and vital but sadly often under-emphasized, under-appreciated, and undermined.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry believes that God means what He says in the Bible about the central importance of these public, outward instruments for spiritual life and growth, and rather than church growth fads and marketing strategies, we will be dedicated to those things. 

God explicitly instructs ministers and churches to do the following things: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13); “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2); “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19); “take, eat; this is my body. …which is for you…drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins; …do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (Matt. 26:26–28; 1 Cor. 11:25–26); “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made…. I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:1, 8).

All of which means, preaching is a vital component of ordinary means of grace ministry and we must affirm its central place in Christian worship. Preaching is foundational even where it does not seem to be so.  The preaching office undergirds and nourishes all the work of the church and of Christians.  Abraham Kuyper expressed well this point: 
“And through this office the call goes forth from the pulpit, in the catechetical class, in family, in writing, and by personal exhortation.  However, not always to every sinner directly through the office… For the instruments of the call whether they were persons or printed books, proceeded from the office.”
Preaching stands behind the family and friends and small group Bible studies that influence so many people today. One of the central acts of worship is hearing the Word preached. Where the Word is not preached and heard, there is no church. To be the Body of Christ and to worship God, we need preaching. That is how important it is.