Monthly Archives: September 2010

An Improvement-Proof Gospel

And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. – Galatians 2:6

Oh, how I love Paul! He is hilarious. He is so cheeky. “Sure, sure. Peter, James, and John, those pillars, they seemed like somebodies, I guess.” Love it!

But is he being as disparaging as he appears? Not really, but sort of. Here’s Luther on this verse:

Paul disparages the authority and dignity of the true apostles. He says of them, “Which seemed to be somewhat.” The authority of the apostles was indeed great in all the churches. Paul did not want to detract from their authority, but he had to speak disparagingly of their authority in order to conserve the truth of the Gospel . . .What they say has no bearing on the argument. If the apostles were angels from heaven, that would not impress me. We are not now discussing the excellency of the apostles. We are talking about the Word of God now, and the truth of the Gospel. That Gospel is more excellent than all apostles.

“The gospel is more excellent than all apostles.” Yes!

You know what? Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, John Piper, Mark Dever, Will Willimon, David Platt. These guys and more are (probably) better preachers than you and me. But if your gospel is the Bible’s gospel, their gospel isn’t better than yours. Same gospel. They can’t improve on it any more than you can …

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10 Reasons for the Institutional Church

“What other church is there besides institutional?” – Eugene Peterson

Entire books have been written on the subject of “the institutional church,” both pro and con, so I don’t propose to offer anything new or comprehensive with a blog post. But the urging to ditch the “institution” of the church just seems so plainly misguided I thought I’d offer some reasons for the good of the institution.

None of this is to say that institutionalization is good, of course, or bureaucracy or professionalization; the church is not essentially an organization but a people called out by God, saved by Christ into his kingdom and image, and powered by the Spirit. The institutionalization of the church is what happens when the Spiritual reality of what the church is disappears and all that’s left is the “local” expression/form. But local expressions/forms are important. Here’s, I think, why:

1. The New Testament presumes church governance2. The New Testament commands church discipline3. The New Testament designates insiders and outsiders in relation to the church4. The image of “the body” presumes unified order5. The New Testament churches had recognizable structures. The apostles sent their letters to somebody6. “Spirit-filled community or institutional organization” is a false dichotomy that presumes the Spirit is powerless against institution7. Logically speaking, there is no such thing as “no institution” except chaos or anarchy. Every community made up of people is institutional to some degree8. That institution is not eternal is not grounds for jettisoning it. Marriage isn’t eternal either.9. The subjection of kings …

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Even to the Uttermost Farthing

‘Would I know the fullness and completeness of the salvation God has provided for sinners? Where shall I see it most distinctly? Shall I go to the general declarations in the Bible about God’s mercy? Shall I rest in the general truth that God is a God of love?

Oh, no! I will look at the crucifixion at Calvary. I find no evidence like that: I find no balm for a sore conscience and a troubled heart like the sight of Jesus dying for me on the accursed tree. There I see that a full payment has been made for all my enormous debts. The curse of that law which I have broken, has come down on One who there suffered in my stead; the demands of that law are all satisfied: payment has been made for me even to the uttermost farthing. It will not be required twice over.

Ah, I might sometimes imagine I was too bad to be forgiven; my own heart sometimes whispers that I am too wicked to be saved. But I know in my better moments this is all my foolish unbelief; I read an answer to my doubts in the blood shed on Calvary. I feel sure that there is a way to heaven for the very vilest of men, when I look at the cross.”

—J.C. Ryle, “Calvary”


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A Thick, Thick Heaven

Wim Wenders created a now-classic foreign film, Wings of Desire, several years ago in which an angel renounces his angel-ness to experience human romance with the woman he’d fallen in love with. (Wings of Desire was remade a few years later in the American film City of Angels, with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.) One of the major conceits of Wings of Desire was that, when an angel, our lover saw the world — and we saw the film — in black and white and shades of gray. When he gave up his “wings” and became human, the film turns to color to reflect his now fully-realized vision.

This is bass ackwards.

Only in the mind whose treasure is set on earth are the heavenlies seen as drab and the earth seen as glorious (by comparison). Our world is glorious, of course, because the skies declare the glory of God, the mountains and trees declare his majesty, and as Calvin reminds us, every blade of grass is meant to make us rejoice. But heaven is far, far better.

Our problem, then, is probably not that this fallen world is seen too beautiful (I could argue it’s not seen as beautiful enough, actually), but that we have a deficient view of heaven. It is more colorful than this world, not less. It is, as CS Lewis depicts it in The Great Divorce, thicker than our world.

Do you realize that Christ’s glorified body is in the heavenly space? His is a body that is tangible, …

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Much More Rational, but Much Less Like a Ball

Miss Bingley: “Would not conversation be much more rational than dancing?”

Mr. Bingley: “Much more rational. But much less like a ball.”

– via Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge.– Proverbs 22:17

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Sowing Justice

At church on Sunday my friend Dan put Sarah Vowell’s humorous history of the Puritans The Wordy Shipmates into my hands and told me he thought I’d like it. I started it Monday afternoon and couldn’t put it down until late. One of my favorite passages so far is this:

When John Cotton’s grandson, Cotton Mather, wrote his Ecclesiastical History of New England in 1702, he told a story about [John] Winthrop that I would like to believe is true. In the middle of winter, Boston was low on fuel and a man came to the governor complaining that a “needy person” was stealing from his woodpile. Winthrop mustered the appropriate outrage and requested that the thief come see him, presumably for punishment. According to Mather, Winthrop tells the man,

“Friend, it is a severe winter, and I doubt you are but meanly provided for wood; wherefore I would have you supply yourself at my woodpile till this cold season be over.” And Winthrop then merrily asked his friends whether he had not effectually cured this man of stealing his wood.

I loved that. And it was fresh on my mind when my daily reading found me at Proverbs 22:8: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.”

I think the reverse can be true as well. “Doing unto others” is most certainly a way to sow justice. Winthrop here did not fail the measure of justice. Perhaps the thief deserved punishment, but Winthrop put a stop to …

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Mad Ministers

I saw someone on Twitter this week compare AMC’s artful series “Mad Men” to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. I see it. But I’m seeing something else, less reflective but more indicting. This is no “Gospel According to Mad Men” — I’ll leave that to Chris Seay — but I do see in the characters certain male archetypes, rich in their falleness, that have parallel to certain ministerial archetypes. If this smacks too much of “relevance” or you have no reference point for “Mad Men,” feel free to move on. But I think the show reminds me of some different pastoral types.

The Don Draper

Named for “Mad Men”‘s main mad man, this is the prototypical rockstar pastor. Having once earned respect with astonishing success, he now commands it at every turn. He keeps everyone at a manageable distance and keeps his assistants and acolytes both demoralized but starving for his approval. A classic narcissist, he believes his own hype. And you better believe it too. This pastor is the toast of many towns. But he will crash and burn eventually.

The Peggy Olsen

Named for one of those Draper acolytes, always under his thumb but desperate for his smile, the Peggy Olsen type of pastor is passive aggressive, envious, secretive, and manipulative, but all from a place of sullen weakness. This pastoral type is in ministry for self-validation, to fill some void that has not been filled by the gospel. The Peggy Olsen is a sweetheart but driven personally by the burden …

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What Gospel Wakefulness Does to Scripture Reading

Thomas Bilney (1495-1531):

I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in 1 Timothy 1. ‘It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief and principal.’

This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working . . . did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that even immediately I seemed unto myself inwardly to feel a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch as ‘my bruised bones leaped for joy’ (Ps 51). After this, the Scripture began to be more pleasant unto me than the honey or the honey-comb.

Once we’ve experienced the sweetness of the liberating Word, we will find it eversweet.

(HT: Dane Ortlund)

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Discovery of Fire

Isn’t the good news like fire? Isn’t hearing it and believing in it a precious, wondrous, life-changing event? It’s startling, confusing, exhilarating in the joy of first sight of something we’ve ever longed for. It gives heat never had, warmth never felt, makes everything taste better. Don’t we dance to discover it, hoot and holler over its newness, its blazing, dangerous beauty?

Don’t we want to light many more fires with it, touching torches and lanterns and taking them everywhere cold and dark? Don’t we want to take this fire and immolate those frozen memorials to flameless promisers of fire? Don’t we want to light up the world with this wonderful elemental stuff?

Don’t we?

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