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Randy Alcorn on Calvinists, Arminians, and Everything In Between

Jan 14, 2015 | Trevin Wax

alcornrandy-47bb17880e497-bigOver the holidays, I read Randy Alcorn’s newest book, hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice. Randy is a writer with a unique ability to delve into some of the most perplexing issues of life and theology and emerge with accessible, while almost encyclopedic explanations for his readers.

  • If God Is Good probes the depths of God’s goodness and human suffering.
  • Heaven answers more questions than you would know to ask.
  • Randy has also seen success at writing fiction, which is why I was grateful for his kind endorsement of my own foray into fiction with Clear Winter Nights.

If you’re looking for a concise, charitable exploration of the Calvinism and Arminianism discussions, you can’t go wrong with hand in HandRandy is at his best here, and I’ve invited him to the blog today and tomorrow to discuss the issues addressed in his book.

Trevin Wax: You use the historic terms “Calvinist” and “Arminian” while recognizing that these labels can obscure whenever they are used to conclude that “all believe A” or “none believe B.” You also warn against taking the other side’s terms and applying them to our definitions. How do our labels and terms frustrate and hinder meaningful conversation on these issues?

Randy Alcorn: My wife Nanci and I learned years ago that we got into trouble by attaching our own meanings to the other’s words. One of us would reason, “If I said that, what I would mean is this.” Then we’d take each other’s words to their logical conclusion (according to our own logic, not the other’s). Only when we realized this did we learn to understand and appreciate each other.

For example, an Arminian says, “People have the freedom to choose as they wish.” A Calvinist responds, “Oh, so you don’t believe people have sin natures or that God is sovereign?” Shocked, the Arminian responds, “What? I believe in both!” The Calvinist insists, “No, you don’t,” because he doesn’t understand that what to him are logical conclusions to the Arminian’s statement are not logical conclusions to the Arminian!

Similarly the Arminian hears the Calvinist say, “God elects people to salvation and empowers them to believe.” The Arminian concludes, “Then you don’t believe people have the ability to make choices; you think they’re robots, and there’s no point in prayer, evangelism and missions.” In his mind, all these are perfectly logical conclusions to the Calvinist’s statement. But they are not what the Calvinist believes! That’s why we need to ask a person what they believe and listen to their answer, asking clarifying questions, instead of reducing them to a theological stereotype.

Both Calvinists and Arminians say “God is sovereign,” but mean different things by sovereign. The same goes for the term “free will.” When Calvinists and Arminians use these terms in conversation without understanding what it means to the other person, miscommunication is inevitable. Then tensions rise, and soon one or both are frustrated and defensive.

It’s fine to label ourselves, but I think it’s wise and kind to avoid labeling others. No one likes being put in a box. (I am always amazed to hear people tell me what I really believe!) When it comes to terminology, especially in conversations regarding God’s sovereignty and meaningful human choice, I’d recommend using our definition or understanding of terms in place of the terms themselves until we know we’re on the same page. It may take longer to explain, but we’ll know what we’re really talking about.

Trevin Wax: Like you, I am not 100% on either the Calvinist or Arminian scale, which has prompted some friends from both sides to try to better inform or persuade me! You write that “all positions have strengths and weaknesses; be sure you know the strengths of others and the weaknesses of your own.” That’s a good word, and you seek to point out strengths and weaknesses in a manner that is fair and charitable. I wonder, though, if those who are fervently committed to one side would agree that the other side has strengths or that theirs has weaknesses. Is this a problem, or is this to be expected when someone is deeply convinced regarding their position? 

Randy Alcorn: If we imagine our position on sovereignty and free will is the only one without problems, we’re kidding ourselves, and need a dose of humility. All positions have snags, whether biblical, logical or practical inconsistencies. A position can be entirely true, but there will always be arguments against it, and if we don’t understand those arguments, or if we dismiss them as if only a stupid person could believe them, we can’t effectively communicate. God deliver us from theological arrogance!

I think it’s a mistake for anyone to attach too much importance to being consistent with our own system. I was an Arminian, as a young Christian in an Arminian church, and after years of studying Scripture I gradually changed my view on election and predestination. But had I allowed my theological system to hold sway, I wouldn’t have changed my views, but would have stayed logically consistent, and that would have been a mistake.

But we Calvinists can do the same thing. We end up being accomplished logicians rather than pure biblicists. If we’re attempting to be card-carrying Calvinists, trying to keep in step with our theological comrades, our real authority is our theological system, or our logic, not the Bible. (If we depend too much on logic, we would never believe many biblical doctrines, including the Trinity—the mathematics don’t add up, do they?)

I recommend being willing to have “leaks” and inconsistencies in your theological system, while remaining unwilling to do violence to Scripture to make it fit your system. When we were translating every verse of the Greek New Testament over the course of three years, my Greek prof would remind us to grapple with the text before us, and let it speak for itself rather than seeing it through the lens of doctrines we’d been taught in our Bible and theology classes. I can still hear him saying, “Better to be at home with your Bible and not your theology, than to be at home with your theology and not your Bible.” When there’s a conflict between the two we need to alter our theology, and I’ve done that considerably over the years.

This is why I think we need to read good books by Bible-believers who argue against our positions. Inevitably, the authors will cite passages I tend to ignore. I reflect on those passages. I try to allow God’s Word to surprise me and change my mind and modify my positions. I like to learn. If I come to God’s Word unguarded, with my shields down, God uses it to grab me, taking me where he wants me to go. If the Bible never changes your mind because you’ve already got everything figured out, you’re missing the joy of discovery.

Trevin Wax: One of the things I appreciated about your book is your insistence that we should let the Bible speak, and we shouldn’t be afraid to sound like the Bible when we talk. Case in point: some argue against saying “God allows” because they think “God causes” is more biblical and consistent with his sovereignty. But since Scripture uses the more passive “allow,” permit,” or “let” along with the active “cause” and “make,” why shouldn’t we? Should we sound more “calvinist” or “arminian” depending on the passage of Scripture we are explaining?

Randy Alcorn: An Arminian can carefully avoid the predestination and election passages, or so redefine the word meanings that they nullify those doctrines. On the other hand, a Calvinist can skip or gloss over where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says, “How often would [Greek thelo] I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would [thelo] not!” (Matthew 23:37). Jesus uses the same word for what he willed as for what fallen creatures willed. And whose will was realized? That of his fallen creatures.

Yes, this isn’t the only text, and many other texts affirm God’s sovereign purposes won’t be thwarted. But I would say to an Arminian, “if this text were the only one on the subject I would have to change my theology—and it certainly serves as a balance to it.” This gives us much more credibility when we call upon them to be faithful in interpreting other texts that are more deterministic in their portrayal of God’s sovereignty.

The Bible features a staggering breadth and depth of truth that selective proof-texting can never reflect.

Trevin, regarding your mention of the language of permission, I’ve heard Calvinists argue against saying “God allows” because they think “God causes” is more biblical and consistent with his sovereignty.

But what does the Bible say? Of course, there are “God determines” passages, such as Romans 9:18, but there are also the “God allows” passages. For instance, an ax head flies from its handle and kills someone. So what does God say? “If [the man] does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate” (Exodus 21:13, ESV). It doesn’t say God caused the accident but rather “lets it happen.” The term “let” or “allow” or “permit” are all good translations. Or, take Mark 5:12-13, where demons beg Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs and Jesus “gave them permission.” God said of disobedient people, “I let them become defiled” (Ezekiel 20:26).

Similarly, Arminians should accept the language of determinism whenever Scripture uses it. God told Abimelech, “I have kept you from sinning against me” (Genesis 20:6). When casting out demons, Jesus “would not allow them to speak” (Luke 4:41).

I like what you say, Trevin, about being willing to sound more Calvinist or Arminian depending on the passage of Scripture we’re explaining. Let’s not posture ourselves and worry about whether we sound Calvinistic or Arminian, but focus on whether we are being biblical. Since Scripture uses the indirect “allow,” “permit,” or “let” along with the direct “cause” and “make,” I think we should do the same. Don’t we need both kinds of words to get the full biblical picture?

~~~~~

Tomorrow, Randy will be back on the blog to discuss meaningful human choice, the rise of Molinism, and his hope for the church.

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Worth a Look 1.14.15

Jan 14, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth6Kindle Deal of the Day: The Formation of Christian Doctrine by Malcolm Yarnell. $1.99.

Academic study of the history of Christian doctrinal development. The book distinguishes at length between “inventio” (making explicit what is implicit in the biblical revelation) and “invention” (presenting a novelty as Christian teaching that conflicts with the biblical revelation).

I’ve been wondering why there has been such disparity in the amount of news coverage given to the tragic deaths of French journalists compared to Boko Haram’s slaughter of 2,000 (yes, 2,000!) people in Nigeria. Over at GetReligion, Bobby Ross takes up the question:

As an American, I find the notion of armed militants going town to town killing thousands of innocent civilians almost incomprehensible. However, it’s not so difficult for me to envision terror attacks like the ones in France.

Rightly or wrongly, that news strikes much more close to home.

If you’re a small group leader or Sunday School teacher, you’ve probably asked this question: “What do I do when no one in my group wants to talk?” Thankfully, Michael Kelley has a good answer.

You ask a question and everyone looks down. You seek feedback and only hear crickets. You know that people in the group are intelligent, thoughtful, and almost certainly struggling with something, yet you feel like you couldn’t pry a word out with a crowbar.

So what can a small group leader do about a group where no one talks?

Matt Chandler on why pursuing racial reconciliation is difficult: we are not naturally drawn to diversity.

All of us, regardless of color, are drawn toward homogeneous units. We run with people who look like us and who value what we value. When all is said and done, although we wouldn’t say with our mouths that we believe our race is superior to other races, we do not value differences. We’re not drawn toward diversity.

The older I get, the less I like winter. But next time I’m tempted to complain about cold temperatures and cloudy skies, I’m going to remember Oymyakon, Russia – the coldest town on earth.

It got down to -24 degrees Fahrenheit in Oymyakon, Russia, over the weekend. As frigid as that seems, it’s typical for this town, long known as the coldest inhabited place on Earth. If that kind of number is hard to wrap your brain around, such a temperature is so cold that people here regularly consume frozen meat, keep their cars running 24/7 and must warm the ground with a bonfire for several days before burying their dead.

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The 6 Moral Foundations of Politics

Jan 13, 2015 | Trevin Wax

the-4-success-pillars“You can’t legislate morality,” the old saying goes, a statement that purports to be common sense, until you begin to realize you can’t not legislate morality. All legislation is passed within a moral framework of ethical ideals and moral considerations.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion lays out six moral foundations of politics. For each foundation, Haidt explains how the left and the right diverge on political applications.

1. The Care/Harm Foundation

This foundation makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need. In order to maximize care and minimize harm, we enact laws that protect the vulnerable. We punish people who are cruel and we care for those in suffering. The left relies primarily on this foundation (and the next one), while the right positions it within a broader matrix of concerns.

2. The Fairness/Cheating Foundation

This foundation leads us to seek out people who will be good collaborators in whatever project we are pursuing. It also leads us to punish people who cheat the system. People on both the right and the left believe in fairness, but they apply this foundation in different ways. Haidt explains:

“On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality – people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes” (161).

3. The Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

All of us, whether on the right or left, are “tribal” in some sense. We love the people on our team, and loyalty makes our team more powerful and less susceptible to our failure. Likewise, we have a corresponding hatred for traitors. Those who betray our “team” for the other side are worse than those who were already on the other side.

Though Haidt sees both left and right as being tribal, he recognizes “the left tends toward universalism and away from nationalism, so it often has trouble connecting to voters who rely on the Loyalty foundation” (164).

4. The Authority/Subversion Foundation

Authority plays a role in our moral considerations because it protects order and fends off chaos. Haidt explains:

“Everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station” (168).

Not surprisingly, the right values this foundation, while the left defines itself by opposing hierarchy, inequality, and power.

5. The Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

No matter the era, humans have always considered certain things “untouchable” for being dirty and polluted. The flipside is that we want to protect whatever is hallowed and sacred, whether objects, ideals, or institutions.

People on the right talk about the sanctity of life and marriage. People on the left may mock “True Love Waits” and purity rings, but they frequent New Age grocery stores, buy products that cleanse them of “toxins,” and warn against human degradation of the environment.

6. The Liberty/Oppression Foundation

This foundation builds on Authority/Subversion because we all recognize there is such a thing as legitimate authority, but we don’t want authoritarians crossing the line into tyranny. Both the left and the right hate oppression and desire liberty, but for different reasons.

The left wants liberty for the underdogs and victims (coinciding with their emphasis on Fairness/Cheating). The right wants liberty from government intrusion.

Conclusion

Haidt believes the left relies primarily on the Care and Fairness and Liberty foundations, while the right appeals to all six. I think he’s right.

On a somewhat related note, one of the fastest ways I can tell if someone leans right or left is by asking a simple question: “What is the bigger threat to our country today: big government or big business?” Those on the left almost always see the government as protecting against big business, and those on the right almost always see the big business as fighting governmental overreach.

What do you think? Where do you see these six moral foundations in our political discourse?

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Worth a Look 1.13.15

Jan 13, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth4Kindle Deal of the Day: Gospel Formed by J. A. Medders. $2.99.

J. A. Medders is on a mission to help Christians remember that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is also the power for our everyday life in Christ.

Here’s a good word from Wesley Parker on why preachers should represent opposing viewpoints at their best, not their weakest:

Poor logic and shoddy argumentation when interacting with the “lofty opinions” of our day, only belie the true level of our confidence in the Scriptures, and also teach the people God has put under our care to have the same lack of confidence.

Lore Ferguson encourages us to put life’s constraints to good use:

Once a painting professor assigned me a project in which I could only use two colors for the piece. He told me, “Constraints are good. They teach you to use your imagination.” As in art, so in life.

Wayne McDill offers 7 essentials for effective sermon preparation:

You may have never heard of a sermon preparation system. Maybe you are saying that you already have your own system; it’s just not written down. Let me urge you to do it. Write it down. If necessary, tack it to the wall like the menu picture in the restaurant kitchen. Then look at it every week. Your preaching will be better for it.

Jen Wilkin answers an important question related to Bible reading. Which promises are for me?

How can we know which promises are for us? How can we lay claim to the promises of the Bible without overstepping their application? Here are some common pitfalls to keep in mind as you study.

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Assessing the State of Your Church and How It Got There

Jan 12, 2015 | Trevin Wax

1177Over the past month or so, I’ve been writing a series of posts on the need for a Christian to know “what time it is” from a biblical (see here, here, and here) and personal standpoint (here).

Today, I want to begin to apply some of these insights to an organization. I’m going to consult a few business books and see how some of the advice might apply to a local church.

What Time Is It In Your Church?

Understanding the life and times of an organization is essential for wise decisions. Too often, pastors and church leaders step into a church or ministry situation without understanding the particular moment the organization is in. When that happens, bad decisions are likely to follow.

Some leaders strategize before they begin, or they take a strategy from a successful organization and attempt to transplant it into a new environment. Often these strategies fail, because they do not grow out of a proper diagnosis of the current situation of the organization.

In his popular book, The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins connects one’s understanding of the organization’s situation to having the wisdom to make good decisions. “Matching your strategy to your situation requires careful diagnosis of the business situation,” he writes. “Only then can you be clearheaded, not just about the challenges, but also about the opportunities and resources available to you” (61).

What are “the times” of an organization? If a pastor walks into a church and seeks to understand “what time it is” organizationally, what kind of diagnosis should he expect?

Where Is Your Church?

Speaking to the business world, Watkins sees four types of organizational “moments,” which I think we can apply to a church setting.

  1. The first is the “start-up,” which could compare to a church plant; it involves getting the new project off the ground.
  2. The second is the “turnaround,” in which the church has declined precipitously and needs to implement significant changes in order to survive and grow.
  3. The third is “realignment,” in which a church that is drifting into trouble or losing its focus needs revitalization.
  4. The fourth is “sustaining success”: the church is healthy and needs a leader who can take the congregation to the next level.

Once the leader diagnoses which of these four moments best describes the organization’s current situation, he or she must analyze the past. Watkins notes:

“You cannot figure out where to take a new organization if you do not understand where it has been and how it got where it is” (65).

To apply these insights to churches, we would focus on vital signs: spiritual health, average worship attendance compared to church membership roles, growth in evangelism and disciple-making, the church’s strengths and weaknesses. It may be uncomfortable to dig into some of these numbers, but it’s essential. There’s no use in denying or downplaying the current situation, whether good or bad.

The Stages of Decline

This emphasis on being honest about “the facts” is common in business books. Jim Collins’s classic, Good to Great, says making good decisions cannot happen apart from confronting the “brutal facts” (70). In a later book that tells the stories of once-mighty companies that have fallen, Collins outlines the stages of decline in organizations that ignore the brutal facts.

  1. The first stage is “hubris born of success,” which naturally leads to an “undisciplined pursuit of more.”
  2. What follows is a “denial of risk and peril,” and then “grasping for salvation” before “capitulation to irrelevance or death.”

The solution to this steady decline is to “determine the truth of your situation” honestly and diligently so that the correct decisions can become self-evident. Echoing the story of the men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), one might say, Leaders understand the times of their organization and therefore know what the people should do.

2 Dangers

In understanding the state of the church, the leader must avoid two potential dangers. The first is to be overly focused on oneself, to be more concerned about one’s reputation being at stake rather than the life and health of the organization. Collins warns:

“The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse” (88).

A second danger is to be so focused on the facts and figures—the information—that the leader forgets to take into consideration the organization’s culture. Watkins defines culture as “the norms and values that shape team members’ behavior, attitudes, and expectations.”

The problems a leader will encounter always have a cultural dimension. To ignore this dimension is to fail to see why people in the organization act and think the way they do.

In a church setting, knowing “what time it is” cannot take place without knowing the established church culture. Matt Chandler, Eric Geiger, and Josh Patterson devote significant attention to the issue of culture in their book Creature of the Word. Some pastors think that if church leaders can agree on core values and a doctrinal statement, other aspects of the church’s vision will fall into place. However, Chandler, Geiger, and Patterson warn:

“If the culture of a church is at odds with the stated beliefs of the church, the culture is typically the overpowering alpha male in the room. The unstated message speaks louder than the stated one.”

Aubrey Malphurs says something similar:

“The better [the leaders] read and understand that culture, as well as their own, the better their potential to shape or lead and minister well in that culture. If they fail to read the culture well, it will mean that the culture of the church will lead and manage them.”

Conclusion

Don’t miss the importance of learning “what time it is” for a church and how it has progressed to this point.

If the church culture has stifled honest conversations about the current realities and challenges, people will begin to shield the leader from “grim facts” for fear of being criticized or penalized for telling the truth. Then, once the “brutal facts” are ignored, the organization suffers and, sometimes, dies.

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Worth a Look 1.12.15

Jan 12, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth5Kindle Deal of the Day: The Gospel of the Lord by Michael Bird. $3.99.

Describes how the canonical Gospels originated from a process of oral tradition, literary composition, textual development, and reception in the early church with a view to showing what makes them among the most important writings in the New Testament.

Daniel Block offers reflections from the hospital bedside of his grandson, who is suffering from brain cancer:

My grandson wanted me to be in the room with him, but he did not want us to make any noise. While at his side, and since I have returned home, I have had a lot of time to reflect on this experience. It has been eye-opening to me, and taught this Old Testament scholar a host of lessons.

The New York Times reports on the economics (and nostalgia) of dead malls:

Premature obituaries for the shopping mall have been appearing since the late 1990s, but the reality today is more nuanced, reflecting broader trends remaking the American economy. With income inequality continuing to widen, high-end malls are thriving, even as stolid retail chains like Sears, Kmart and J. C. Penney falter, taking the middle- and working-class malls they anchored with them.

Christianity Today on the death of Gospel music singer and writer, Andrae Crouch. If you don’t recognize that name, you would probably recognize any number of his songs (“Soon and Very Soon,” “My Tribute To God Be The Glory,” “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” and “Jesus is the Answer”).

Crouch was an innovator, a path-finder, a precursor in an industry noted for its conservative, often derivative approach to popular music. He combined gospel and rock, flavored it with jazz and calypso as the mood struck him and the song called for it, and is even one of the founders of what is now called “praise and worship” music. He took risks with his art and was very, very funky when he wanted to be. Tonight he died at age 72 from complications from Saturday’s heart attack.

Amy Grant may have made CCM popular; Andrae made it sound great.

Union University professor George Guthrie writes a personal, heartfelt, and compelling review of David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind:

David appeals especially to those of us who are people of faith, issuing a public invitation for us to consider both the authoritative texts and the implications of our interpretations for life in the modern world as followers of Christ. I take up his invitation, for it’s one that has massive implications for my family, my students (both past and present), members of my church, my university, the body of Christ, Christian mission, and, I suggest, everyone in the broader cultures in which we live and move and have our being. I read and considered David’s thoughts and offer the following in return, in due course explaining why I—while embracing dialogue and an opportunity for growth in embodying the gospel—am not “changing my mind” on the beautiful and powerful gift of sex, which I believe God has reserved for heterosexual marriage.

 

 

 

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May I Be Rich in the Riches of Your Word

Jan 11, 2015 | Trevin Wax

19322Your Word is full of promises,
flowers of sweet fragrance,
fruit of refreshing flavor when culled by faith.

May I be rich in its riches,
be strong in its power,
be happy in its joy.

May I abide in its sweetness,
feast on its preciousness,
draw vigor from its manna.

Lord, increase my faith.

Valley of Vision (adapted)

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Marveling at God’s Sovereignty and Human Choice

Jan 10, 2015 | Trevin Wax

hand-in-handRandy Alcorn:

Of all the dilemmas we confront in life, none is more befuddling than God’s sovereignty and human choice. So why do I find the perplexing question of God’s sovereignty and human choice beautiful rather than frustrating?

It all depends on perspective.

When astronomers gaze into deep space they’re confronted with the universe’s puzzles. One of them is dark energy, which is “thought to be the enigmatic force that is pulling the cosmos apart at ever-increasing speeds.” How and why is it doing this? Another unknown is how dark matter, “thought to make up 23 percent of the universe,” somehow has “mass but cannot be seen”; its existence is deduced by the “gravitational pull it exerts on regular matter.” What exactly is it?

Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles that flow into our solar system from deep in outer space, but where do they actually come from? It’s been a mystery for fifty years. The sun’s corona, its ultrahot outer atmosphere, has a temperature of “a staggering 10.8 million degrees Fahrenheit.” Solar physicists still don’t understand how the sun reheats itself.

These mysteries and countless others have not so much frustrated scientists as fascinated them. Watch their interviews and read their articles; their wonder about things they don’t comprehend is palpable. You don’t have to be able to wrap your mind around something in order to see its beauty.

This is how I view the conundrum of God remaining sovereign while still granting his creatures the gift of choice. The immensity of the marvel itself should move God’s children to worship.

Human beings are capable of inventing nonliving machines, including computers they program to do complex tasks. But God goes far beyond that by creating complex beings with choice-making capacity, including the freedom to worship or revolt.

For God to fully know in advance what billions of human beings could and would do under certain circumstances, and to govern our world in such a way as to accomplish his eternal plan – is this not stunning?

If we can gaze at the night sky or a waterfall or the ocean with hearts moved at their sheer beauty, should we not be able to study the metaphysical wonders of God’s universe with equal or even greater awe?

Surely our lives are greatly enriched when we recognize the mysterious beauty of the interplay between God’s ways and ours.

– from hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice, 6-7.

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This Guy Preached the World’s Longest Sermon: The Whole Bible in 53 Hours

Jan 08, 2015 | Trevin Wax

23

Picture from Silas Barr Photography

A few weeks ago, I ran across this snippet in World magazine:

After more than two days in the pulpit, Pastor Zach Zehnder of a Mount Dora, Fla., church has set a world record for longest speech marathon. The 31-year-old pastor of theCross church delivered a 53-hour, 18-minute sermon with the help of 200 pages of notes and more than 600 PowerPoint slides that began on Friday, Nov. 7, and ended at 12:18 p.m. on Sunday. The church organized congregants at all hours to hear Zehnder’s sermon that spanned Genesis to Revelation.

I was intrigued by Zach’s efforts to preach such a long sermon, and also encouraged to discover his desire to preach the Bible as a grand narrative (which is something W. A. Criswell famously did in 5 hours). I’ve invited Zach to the blog to give us some insight into the preparation and delivery of this message.

Trevin Wax: Zach, I’m guessing you had to do some research on the world records for longest sermon. What got you thinking about this idea?

Zach Zehnder: My wife leads the kid’s ministry at our church, and there was an activity she was doing with the kids that involved Guinness World Records. I remember thinking, “I wonder what the longest sermon ever preached was.”

First, I love to preach and anytime God’s Word goes out, it accomplishes something and so the longer I preach, the more opportunity for the grace of Jesus to be shared and make an impact in someone’s life. Secondly, I’m really competitive and so I thought it would be pretty cool to have a world-record! As I investigate with Guinness, they do not have a category for “Longest Sermon Marathon,” but they sent back the “Longest Speech Marathon” as an alternative.

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Picture from Silas Barr Photography

Trevin Wax: What was the preparation stage like? I’m assuming that preaching for 50+ hours straight means you had to put together a year’s worth of sermons. How did you get ready for this?

Zach Zehnder: The preparation was by far the hardest part of the speech. I had thought of this idea over a year before we actually did it, and I started preparing 6 months prior.

If people were going to come and listen to me preach for 2 or 4 hour shifts (some even stayed for more than 40 hours of it) then I wanted to make it a quality event. Nobody had ever preached this long before, so I started like any normal sermon by preparing an outline.

My goal was to preach through the entire Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. So, I picked out 50 different stories/topics and arranged them chronologically.

From there I went through past sermons and tried to fill in the topics. I had notes and manuscripts for 35 out of the 50. So I had to fill in the other 15 just like any other sermon. All in all, this was about 2 years worth of preaching for a normal pastor who preaches every week.

Trevin Wax: You decided to do a sermon that tells the entire story of the Bible. Why did you decide to take this approach?

Zach Zehnder: I wanted to preach through the entire Word of God because I felt like certain things would stick out to me that previously I hadn’t noticed. As I did this, it just reconfirmed God’s ridiculous commitment to us despite us failing Him time after time. We know this, but when you look at the totality of the Word in one setting, it becomes even more apparent and even more amazing that God loves us as much as He does. Romans 5:8 stuck out to me as a key verse.

Trevin Wax: How did you determine what stories to include and what stories to leave out?

Zach Zehnder: I wanted to include all the major ones. Obviously, there was some bias there as I didn’t want to start from scratch. For instance, I had preached 20 weeks on Exodus a year ago, so I spent about 6 to 8 hours alone in Exodus. The same could be said of a series I did earlier this year on 1 Corinthians. I covered that for 4 to 5 hours.

Trevin Wax: When was the most difficult point in delivering the sermon?

Zach Zehnder: Training myself to eat while talking. I had a power nap about 24 hours in and woke up and was very light-headed. I hadn’t eaten enough the first 24 hours. So my medical team (I had 4 nurses from the church that rotated shifts during the speech) pumped me with a big breakfast and I got more comfortable eating in front of people while talking. I got so comfortable that I even ate steak and lobster at hour 36 while preaching through the Sermon on the Mount! It doesn’t get better than that.

My throat felt awful about 8 hours in and I was unsure if I would make it, but again, I hadn’t taken anything at that point. They pumped me with some hot honey tea, throat spray, and lozenges and I was good to go. My voice held throughout and was about as sharp at the end as it was at the beginning.

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Picture from Silas Barr Photography

Trevin Wax: What did you do after you finished speaking?

Zach Zehnder: I went home and took a 7 hour nap and then watched part of a Sunday Night Football game then fell asleep again for another 7 hours. I was pretty out of it. Apparently my kids came home and I talked with them for a couple minutes, but I have no recollection of that!

Trevin Wax: Tell us about the ministry that gripped your heart and led you to take on this challenge. How much money did you raise?

Zach Zehnder: We raised over $102,000 for Hand in Hand which is a local non-profit in Lake County, FL. They recently opened a recovery house for men in our area and the money went to that house called PowerHouse Recovery Program.

I believe in second chances and I want to help those who have struggled with alcoholism and addiction. It’s been amazing to see God work through these men at the house and how He’s changing their lives. My motivation was to help this house succeed as best as I could. And if I can’t give $100,000, but can help raise $100,000 then I wanted to do my part. I’m very proud of the money that we raised and believe that many men will be able to change their lives through this event. People can still donate to the cause at longestspeechever.com/donate.

Trevin Wax: How many people were involved in this event?

Zach Zehnder: We had over 50 people that put a ton of time into this event before it even started. They were doing everything from marketing, finding sponsors, figuring out tech stuff, logistics team, rules team, and medical team. We had about 500 people that stopped in to show support over the weekend and over 200 different witnesses and spectators during the weekend as well. I want to say a big “Thanks” to my church for all their hard work.

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