Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Pastor Who Understands

Yesterday I had a nice visit with some folks from our church and our conversation turned toward preaching. They shared a list of their favorite preachers and I responded with a question. "What is it that you like about those pastors?"

Today I ask the same question of myself. There are some pastors that I consider to be excellent communicators of God's Word. If someone asked me why I believe Neil Plantinga, William Willimon, John Piper, and my colleagues in the Lynden CRC churches are great preachers, I would say each of those men understands not only the Gospel but the human condition.

I am far more inclined to submit to the teaching of a pastor who is not overwhelmed by the world or his own sinful desires. I realize he still sins, but yet he should still set an example for believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. In short, he is respectable. In addition he must understand the world and all the temptations that fill it. He is neither removed from the world nor is he tossed around by the changing tides of culture and popularity.

The pastor who lives too far away from the world (I think of those in super-conservative churches or some pastors whose only responsibility is to preach) might live a pure life but he is disconnected from the realities that surround his flock. On the other hand, the pastor who attempts to relate to his congregation by constantly heralding his struggles with sin damages his credibility as a shepherd. In short, my ideal preacher is neither aloof nor a mess.

For the ultimate example of such ministry we need only look to our sinless yet soft-hearted Savior. Hebrews 4:15-16 teaches, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

The issues at stake here are more than homiletical. What is the nature of Christian sanctification and holiness? How is a Christian to engage the world around him or her? Good reformed preaching models a healthy approach to life in an already-but-not-yet world. It not only delivers God's Word but it models the effect that the Gospel has had on the thoughts, actions, attitudes and words of the preacher.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You Got Questions. I Got Answers.

In our denomination there is an increasing divide between those who love to ask questions and those who love to give answers.

When looking to Jesus' example, either "side" might find texts that bolster their perspective. There were times in Jesus' ministry when he responded with a less specific response than his questioners (or the modern-day reader) desire. Yet there were other instances when he provided an unambiguous answer and commanded his disciples to believe in certain things about him.

Both of these principles are present when Jesus is teaching his disciples in John 8. Our Lord says to his followers in verses 31-32, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Here Jesus turns our eyes to the inseparable link between truth and freedom. His teaching (which is all of Scripture) gives us answers. This statement excites those who prefer answers. Once you have those answers, Jesus promises that you will be set free. The promise of freedom makes the "questioner" giddy. For the sake of both sides, it is worth exploring what it is that we who have the truth are being set free from.

By Jesus blood we are set free from sin. With God's truth we are set free from dangerous wandering.

The answers provided in Scripture, the creeds, and the confessions of our church are like a guide book in the wilderness of life. David uses a similar analogy in the Psalm 119:105: " Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." If you have a good map you are able to explore the trail and the wilderness with confidence. But the moment you lose the guide book the wilderness becomes dangerous. Berries that look delicious could be deadly. What looks like a shortcut might lead off a cliff. Those makeshift barriers built by previous hikers are easily disregarded if you convince yourself the destination is just on the other side. For anyone who has ever been lost in the woods, you know that the wilderness can feel like an endless prison where each step only leads to more doubt about where you have been, where you are now, and where you are going.

The mighty Holy Spirit and the infallible Word of God have guided the church throughout all times and places. Our denomination has a rich heritage of Spirit-led pioneers, who have each trekked their leg of the path with expertise and integrity. Men like Alvin Plantinga and women like Johanna Veenstra have been equipped to take risks because of their skillful and creative use of those indispensable guides.

Where do we go from here? First you need to realize if you're a questioner or an answerer.

I like answers. At the end of the day I want to know what a trusted source (like the Bible, the confessions, the "Contemporary Testimony" or a fellow preacher) has decided on an important topic. I like to give reasons for the hope that I profess. I like to be sure of what I hope for. This means I need to be intentional about having a gracious and hospitable attitude towards questioners. It's not wrong if people with big questions pursue them within the structures that our church has deemed appropriate. Under the God-ordained supervision of first the council, then classis, and finally Synod we can be free to apply biblical discernment to new ideas. An "answerer" like me needs frequent reminders of that freedom.

For those who prefer questions, you generally think of ideas as being near or far from the truth instead of right or wrong. This doesn't mean you reject absolute truth (you know there is a destination and a way to get there), but the amount of truth that you believe is knowable is less than the typical "answerer" would claim. You are more likely to probe the mysteries of Job, the startling emotions of the Psalms and the theological complexity of the incarnation. However, you may need to be reminded of Jesus' teaching that real freedom cannot be had without truth. In our denomination that translates into your need to embrace the confessions as the handy trail map that they are. It's not that this will automatically impede your inquiries, but it does hold your questions and beliefs accountable to the standards we have covenanted to keep.

Jesus and the Apostle Paul couldn't be clearer about the essential relationship between these different parts of the body of Christ. We need both. And that means we need questioners who love the truth as well as answerers who are willing to question. As we work together instead of against one another we take part in fulfilling Jesus' promise in John 8.

John Calvin, echoing Jesus' words, tells us that faith is based on knowledge, not ignorance. As Christian Reformed people who are outfitted with knowledge and the Holy Spirit we can be free to proclaim truth boldly and to ask questions about what each truth means for our lives.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Read Old Books

Hindsight is 20/20. So shouldn't long distance hindsight be even clearer?

As far as literature goes, the older the book the better. This is not necessarily true for the content, but it is certainly true for the reader's ability to sift through quality ideas (which are universal) vs. culturally influenced trends.

While perusing John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion a 21st century reader can easily discern between content that is solidly biblical (of which there is much) and content that is loaded with emotional baggage regarding Catholicism or the Anabaptist movement. While this doesn't mean Calvin's points concerning differing theologies are illegitimate, our cultural distance from the author enables easier detection of the his faults.

I am less able to do this with recent North American literature because I likely share the cultural and emotional starting point as the modern author. I see many of the same issues with evangelical Christianity (consumerism, apathy, biblical illiteracy, over-contexualization, etc.) and so it's likely that I have already arrived at similar conclusions.

A prime example of this can be found in one of the foundational documents of our denomination: the Heidelberg Catechism. You're reading along and when you get to Q&A 80 (which goes out of its way to bash the Catholic mass) and you realize the catechism has overstepped its purpose. On the other hand, the relevance of the rest of the catechism and the other reformed confessions shows their Spirit-led authorship and, in my view, means they succeeded in remaining close to the eternal and universal words of Scripture.

Perhaps the biggest reason I love to read old books is that it makes me feel connected to the Church. The giants of theology dealt with the same things I face as a pastor. Augustine was surprised at the amount of grief he felt when his friend died. Aquinas preached to people who were religious but not holy. Calvin struggled to continue his journey because of setbacks and controversy. These aren't modern problems. They're human problems. And there's a reason the answers these guys gave are still being taught in classrooms.
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." - Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Idol Factory

I was wondering recently how it was possible that the Israelites turned from God at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses was receiving the 10 commandments. After all they had seen they still thought a golden statue would meet their spiritual needs. We look back and say, "How foolish! A piece of shiny metal can't compare with the Most High God."

The Israelite reply would have been simple. "At least we can see the golden calf."

Why is that rebuttal still so powerful thousands of years later? Combining the innate human desire to worship with our preference for anything simple, tangible, and measurable is a deadly recipe. This universal mindset caused John Calvin to quip, "The human heart is a factory of idols."

God seemed "up there" while the golden calf or a gold medal or a gold ring is right in front of me. The roar of the crowd for the athlete, the bi-weekly paycheck for the bread winner, and the grateful words for the pastor are predictable and immediate while the ultimate approval of the Lord requires faith and patience.

What is the believer to do? Pray that the Lord would replace "all the vain things that charm me most" with himself. Praying to God is taking a huge step away from the immediate gratification offered by idols.

It also helps to remember the inadequacy of idols in comparison with the complete sufficiency of Christ. Can a paycheck really give you what you desire? Can a vacation truly take your burdens upon itself? Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. rightly observes that the problem with idols is that they can't support the weight we place on them. The marketing department of the idol factory makes promises that the production department can't possibly deliver on. However, Christ's lofty promises have been fulfilled.

"[The idolator's] end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself." - Philippians 3:19-21
To believe in Christ is to replace destruction and shame with transformation and glory. What an offer! What a Savior!


For an excellent sermon on this topic listen to Neil Plantinga's message on Exodus 32.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

More Volume = Better Worship?

Blogger Thom Rainier recently posed the question "How loud should our church music be?" Having visited a few churches lately that pumped the volume up to Spinal Tap levels, I have been asking myself the same question. And since a reputable blogger brought it up that means I can take a crack at it.

The foundational principles of loud music during church are presented in Thom's article,

"Conventional wisdom tells us that more volume equals more energy. After all, people don't want to hear themselves sing, right?"

I believe it is thoroughly unreformed to have a church's music volume at a point where worshipers cannot hear others around them singing (the problem is amplified when I can't even hear myself worshiping).

First of all we start with the Bible. It's problematic that worship leaders are basing their practices on "conventional wisdom," especially when this leads us in a direction that might contradict Scripture. Throughout Scripture it seems as though God desires all worshipers make a loud sound of praise. The shouts of the Israelites brought down the walls of Jericho, seventeen of the Psalms encourage God's people to shout his praise in a loud voice and the ultimate picture of worship from Revelation 5 is of people lifting up the name of the Lord with loud singing. Worship should be loud. As loud as all my inmost being praising his holy name.

But does that necessarily mean that we can't have loudness in the instrumentation in addition to the congregational singing? This is where the Reformation comes into the picture.

The rationale of worship leaders who espouse loud music is that people don't want to sing or hear others singing. It's right there in the aforementioned quote. And so that logically leads them into dangerous territory: the worship team will sing for them. Amplified sound produced by professionals will take the place of the loud singing from all believers that God desires.

To me, this mindset is adjacent to prevailing ideas about worship and faith in the pre-Reformation church. Regular people can't handle the Bible, so the professionals will handle it for them. Regular people can't understand the deep mysteries of God, so the pros understand things for them. Regular people can't sing, so the pros sing for them. The Reformers rightly drop-kicked this bad theology, but it's returning thanks to the poor pneumatology of far too many pastors and church leaders.

At its worst, high volume from the professional worship team all but replaces congregational participation. It's happening all over the evangelical church. Instead of causing concern among worship leaders, this phenomenon only entrenches them further into their assumptions that people don't want to sing.

Loud volume from the worship team and instruments prevents people from being encouraged by the regular voices around them. That person standing next to me has cancer, but I can hear their voice singing "Blessed be the name of the Lord." That person sitting behind me was an alcoholic, but I can hear them singing "Grace that is greater than all my sin." That guy at the back of church might not carry a tune like Pavarotti, but he can encourage others (and obey God's command) by proclaiming "Victory in Jesus, my Savior, forever!" with a loud voice in the presence of the assembly.

It's possible that's happening in every church where the music is pumped up to 95 decibels, but I wouldn't know because I couldn't hear my wife, my kids, my neighbor or even myself.