A Kangaroo Kourt

I wasn’t expecting much. The standard was incredibly low. There is nothing so disappointing as setting the bar extremely low and then having to watch as they stand on their tiptoes just to make their fingertips touch it.

That’s the way that I usually feel when I watch a Christian film. I don’t necessarily mean the documentaries. There have been good, informative, documentary films. I mean the ones where the film tries to depict actual life. Those are usually a train wreck. If we were to compare them to art, they would most resemble the work of a five-year old brat who has secretly found her mother’s tube of red Revlon and gone Van Gogh on the hallway walls.

It happened again. Last evening I had the dubious honor of watching yet another wall being wrecked by the furious scribblings of the erstwhile five-year old defenders of the faith. I am speaking of the latest feel good film, God’s Not Dead.

When the first scene opened I was pleasantly surprised. The cinematography was very good. This was not a bargain-basement, low-budget monstrosity. This was actually going to be a real movie! For a moment I thought that I would get to be proven wrong for holding such critical notions. It wasn’t to be. The alluring spell of the talented camera men was broken as soon as the first character opened his mouth.

I expected corny and cheesy. Sometimes you would rather not get what you expected. Unfortunately, I got just what I expected. I don’t want to give a play-by-play overview. That would be too exhausting for all of us. Let me just summarize and move on. The characters were shallow and superficial. The caricatures of the atheists, muslims, pastors, and missionaries were just downright offensive. The innumerable sub-plots were scattered and forced. The Christianity presented was hollow and trite. The plot never did thicken, it just clabbered. It was one, long, Newsboys commercial (the amount of memorabilia displayed was almost hilarious).  If you have two hours that you absolutely hate, and you want to see them die a slow, agonizing death, then go watch this movie.

The worst part of the film was the actual heart of it. The protagonist in the movie, a college freshman, has the unenviable task of having to defend the Christian Faith, against his anti-theistic professor, in front of his philosophy class. He is given three chances to make his case for the existence of God. So far so good. Then the wheels come off.

“We are going to put God on trial. The professor will be the prosecutor, I will be the defense attorney, and you (class) will be the jury.” Wait a minute! Time out! Cut! Who do you think you are?

From the very first argument God is divested of His inherent godness. God is never judged. He is the Judge. He never stands to be affirmed or denied by a jury of His peers. He has no peers. An apologetic that begins by denying the supreme authority of God has failed miserably at holding forth the claims of the God of the Bible. You are jumping up and down on the skinny branches before you ever begin. You will never reap a great harvest if you just give away the farm. C.S. Lewis addresses this idea in his book, God in the Dock, when he says,

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock…The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God in the dock.”

The Christian is defending a point, not proving one. Our starting point is always, “Jesus is Lord!” The Apostle Peter gives us both the mandate for apologetics and the manner of apologetics in his first epistle. In 1 Peter 3:15 he says, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always be ready to set forth a defense to everyone who asks you for a reasoned account concerning the hope in you, yet with gentleness and respect.”

Notice where we start our arguments. “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts…” A truly Christian defense of the faith must never fail to exalt Christ as supreme Lord over all. That includes arguments and reasoning. Greg Bahnsen notes, “An apologetic that builds on any other rock than Christ does not honor the greatness of divine wisdom; it is foolishly and audaciously erected on the ruinous sands of human authority.” Commenting on the verse cited above, Calvin writes, “Contentious disputes arise from the fact that many think less honorably than they ought of the greatness of divine wisdom, and are carried away by profane audacity.”

Profane audacity—that was the opening gambit in the fight to defend God. Who has the right to put God on trial? A college professor? A first semester student? A room full of pimple-faced underclassmen? Hardly. No, God isn’t dead. He’s not showing up for your kangaroo court either.

More to follow…

The Slow Train from Christendumb

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” ~Countless Christians for Centuries

Christians are those who confess the faith. The Faith is not the same as faith.  Ordinarily, faith is a verb.  In this instance, faith is both a verb and a noun.  I believe (verb) the Faith (noun).  That is something very active and something very concrete.  My purpose is not to offer a refresher course in the finer point of English grammar, but rather to remind the reader that our faith is very specific and very precious.

When the Apostolic writers urge us to “hold fast to the faith” and “earnestly contend for the faith once (for all) delivered to the saints” they aren’t commanding us to strain our spiritual muscles into a cramped state of abstract believing in only God knows what.  They are telling us to believe the body of Christian doctrine which has been received by fathers and passed down to sons.  That is a very specific body of truth.  Belief alone is not Christian.  Believing the truth is Christian.

We are not asked to confess our faith in isolation, but rather in concert with other saints throughout the world, and down through the long history of the Church.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.  When those hallowed words arise from our hearts and enter the world through our lips we are taking a stand as historic Christians.

Together with that great cloud of witnesses, we believe in God the Father Almighty.  The God of the Bible is not some limp-wristed, diminutive deity.  He is Almighty, and it comforts us to know that this omnipotent One is our Father.  He is not a vague Benevolence; He is the king of all glory and nothing is too hard for Him.  At the same time, we confess that He is our Father.  As the Almighty One, the distance between us and Him is infinite.  Loving condescension on His part spans that great gulf as He takes us into His bosom, in union with His Son, and makes us Heirs of God.

Because He is Maker of heaven and earth, we did not come about as the result of primordial forces working manfully away on a pile of primordial goo.  We were created, imago Dei, by the same One who made everything in heaven and on earth, by the simple word of His power.  As John the Apostle reminds us, nothing that was made was made apart from Him.

We are Christians; we know that Jesus Christ our Lord is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  This refers to His unique status as one who never began to be the Son of God.  The relationship between Father and Son is an eternal one, just as the author of Hebrews teaches us.  There never was a time when He was not. Jesus Christ is eternally-begotten of the Father.  This is the One whom we confess as our Lord.  To confess another (or fail to confess this One) is to fall short of salvation.

Everything about the beginning of His incarnation was miraculous, from His conception to His virgin birth.  At the end of His life, Jesus died and was buried during the rule of a particular governor of Judea.  These things are no myth; they were not done in a corner.  These are reliable, historical facts.  This we confess.  The manner of His death and burial was in full accordance with the Scriptures.  The cross, burial and resurrection are the heart of the gospel.  He rose from the dead physically.  A spirit does not have flesh and bones as Jesus did, and still does.  Christ the Lord is enthroned today at God’s right hand.  As the psalmist says, He will remain there until all of His enemies are subdued and placed beneath His feet.  At the end of history, Christ will judge all men.  God has declared that Christ is the Judge of all by bringing Him back from the dead.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and has all the divine attributes held by both the Father and the Son, and in His power He binds together the holy catholic Church.  In part, we make this confession because we share the communion of this Church with every true saint throughout all history.  In the heart of the new covenant, at the center of this communion, we find forgiveness of sins.  If this is not true then we are sunk.

As Christians, we do not hold to the immortality of the soul, but rather to the resurrection of the dead.  We will live forever as sons and daughters of God—in the body.  This life forever is the grace of God, a grace which will never cease.

As this summary of the Apostles’ Creed makes clear, the ancient creeds have done much to shape the expression of our common faith.  In a similar way, Nicea and Chalcedon give us a time-tested way to confess the truth of God as it is found in Christ.  The language of these creeds is formal, lofty, scriptural, and Christ honoring.  In these creeds, we find clear testimony of the heart of the gospel—the cross and burial, the resurrection and ascension, the enthronement of Christ, and His second coming in power and glory.  This gospel is always to be understood as that which God did for us in Christ, and not that which we do by some act of our own will.

These creeds were born in controversy. We take the answers for granted now, but when they were under dispute, the future of all Christendom was hanging in the balance.  Further, the history of the creeds shows us the idea of creedal advance.  The Church grows and matures doctrinally over time.  Some wonderful creedal and confessional statements have been made since the time of these early confessions, but only by portions of the Church.  The Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession are wonderful examples of this kind of doctrinal maturity which is possible—but creeds of this caliber have not yet been confessed by the Church universally.  A central part of our duty is to labor and pray for the time when the entire Church is mature enough to confess a truly Reformed faith, reformed according to the scripture.

Unfortunately, we are not yet in a position to do much pressing on.  Part of the reason why creedal advance has stalled in our generation is because of mindless neglect.  We have seriously neglected those truths which the Church has confessed universally.  Such agreement provides the only possible foundation for building further.  The Church, no less than individuals, needs to live up to what it has already attained.

For the modern evangelical, who does not believe in creeds, this is all just too much.  He has no respect for ecclesiastical history, or the sovereign providence of God over all history.  So he wants none of it—he does not believe it.  If he knew a little Latin, he could begin his denial with non Credo, which in its short, succinct way, is a nice little creed.  In the world that God made there is no place for neutrality.  We must either affirm or we must deny.

He may yet still continue to protest.  He does not believe in creeds because He has the Bible.  He believes the Bible—the Bible only.  Isn’t this the classical Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura?  Um, no.  There is no refuge here from the necessity of creeds.  That would be like hiding in the lion’s belly in order to escape his teeth. When a man opens his Bible, the first thing he encounters—the table of contents—is a creed.  When a man looks at the spine and sees the letters KJV, NASB, ESV, NKJV, he is gazing upon a small creed.  Because the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, the Church must testify concerning the truth.  Even the man who says that he has no time for creeds and wants to stick with the Bible alone must say that this book and not that one is “the Bible alone.”

When a man says, “I believe,” he has confessed adherence to a creed.  When a man says, “I do not believe,” well, he has confessed adherence to a creed too.  The question is not whether or not you will confess faith.  The question is, which faith will you confess?

It’s time that we stop spitting on the graves of our fathers.  They gave us much.  We own them much.  It seems that someone quite important once said, “To whom much is given, much shall be required.”  We have a God-given obligation to perpetuate the faith to the ends of the earth.  That train never leaves the station unless it has tracks under it.  Those tracks go all the way back to the beginning point.  Our job is to run to the end of the line and carry as many passengers as we can back to the original point of origin.

Orthodox confession ought to be like an involuntary reflex to us.   We ought to always be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope that lies within us.  Sharing our faith is predicated on upon knowing it.  So, “Christian, what do you believe?”  Hopefully we will say something like,

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, 

Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; 

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

Born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, 

Was crucified, died, and was buried;

He descended into hell;

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven, 

And sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;

From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit;

The holy catholic Church;

The communion of saints;

The forgiveness of sins;

The resurrection of the body, 

And life everlasting.”

Amen and Amen.

Preaching for Conversion

One of the great tangles created by revivalism, and by the reaction to it, is a misunderstanding of what it is to preach for true conversion.  In the tradition of revivalism, evangelistic preaching is a basic recruiting tool used to get people saved, then later a different set of classes is offered for those who enlisted, if they ever should decide that they want to learn something.  In reaction to this, many sacramental churches have downplayed the need for conversion preaching at all.  “Of course I am a Christian,” the thinking goes.  “Why else would I have been sitting in this pew, watching that guy in a robe, at least I’m pretty sure it’s a guy, for thirty years?”

But in truth, an effective preacher always preaches for conversion, regardless to whom he is preaching.  This is because an effective preacher always preaches Christ, and in a fallen world, there is not a hearer of sermons out there who does not need to turn to Christ in some respect, in some way, every day of his life.  Converto is the Latin verb meaning I turn.  When a man first becomes a Christian, there is a fundamental turning, of course.  He turns “from idols, to serve the living God.”  This is initial conversion; this is regeneration.  But is the need to turn to Christ abolished after that?  Is the need to call men and women to come to Christ gone?

It is a mistake to preach conversion to everybody in a Christian congregation as though they had not turned to Christ in this fundamental way.  And it is just as big of a mistake to preach sermons that pat the backs of the hands of lackluster Christians, sermons that neglect the need to be converted to Christ, constantly.  In his famous 95 Theses, Martin Luther pointed out that when the Word says to repent, it meant a lifelong repentance that was in view.  We never get to check the box next to “turned to Christ” and say, “I did that. What’s next?”  We always must turn to Christ, and the people of God must always be summoned to do so.

The preacher must understand that humanity is divided into two great classes, the converted and the unconverted, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the tares.  True enough, one of these groups has not come to Christ at all, and the other has.  But suppose a man is preaching to a congregation where they all have turned to Christ in this fundamental way.  How does he preach for conversion now?

Jesus is not an X on the floor where you can come and stand, and, if you have come to stand there, there is nothing further to do.  No—we used to know Christ after the flesh, but we do so no longer.  Further up and further in.

To preach Christ is to preach the One to whom we have come.  If Christ is preached in power, then a congregation of saints who have loved Him for thirty years will delight in the message, and respond.  They will grow and flourish under this kind of conversion preaching.  But if you just assume that nobody there has ever really been converted, and you explain to them how to “become Christians,” then the sermons are just so much vain jangling.  It makes no sense to gather a bunch of Christians together and explain to them that they aren’t, after all, Christians.  There is a type of Reformed “preaching” which specializes in kicking God’s elect all over the sanctuary, smiting them hip and thigh.  If you want proof of the election of these suffering saints, and of their persevering grace, here it is.  No one but the elect would persevere through such bad preaching and press into the Kingdom.  The apostle did say that we would enter the Kingdom through much tribulation, but I don’t believe that he was referring to the sermons.

There is a way of discovering Christ that is utterly distinct from what it was to discover Him for the first time.  There is a way of growing in Him that is conversion to Him.  “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…” (Gal. 4:19).   The Bible describes our justification as Christ, and it describes our sanctification as Christ.  It further describes our glorification as Christ as well.  “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.  For I am in a straight betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:21-23).

To live is Christ, to depart is more Christ.  To be justified is Christ, to be sanctified is Christ.  Growing in wisdom is growing in Christ.  Flourishing in our redemption is Christ.  So then, the preacher must always preach Christ.

As he does so, he will be issuing a clarion call for conversion.  This conversion will be a glory and a joy to those already converted, and it will be the power of God unto salvation for those who are not yet converted

Daddy Issues

“Our church is against all traditions.  That is our historic position on the matter.” ~Unnamed (but not unknown)

The alternative being disaster, the modern evangelical world must soon return to the ancient faith of our fathers by saying, “I believe” and meaning it.  For some time now we have hyped the importance of having a “contemporary” and “relevant” Christianity, and have done so to the point where we have almost emptied the faith of its historic and orthodox content.  In a mad pursuit of cisterns that will hold no water, we have come to love the dust on the inside of our dry, empty jars.  Our thirst will be a permanent one unless we come back to the creeds of a historic Christianity—in particular the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon.

Once in a conversation with one modern evangelical, I was told that the fathers who handed down these great creeds to us were “just a bunch of dead guys.”  This reductionism is pretty typical of the modern mind and is really the heart and soul of the problem.  Of course this modern reductionism has as its evil twin those who profess to love the creeds—do they not mumble them religiously every Sunday?—but in their hearts they are as far away from Christian orthodoxy as the Dalai Lama.

A creedal church is one which thinks, lives, worships, and disciplines in terms of that creed.  A creedal church is one in which the words I believe in God the Father Almighty provoke tears of gladness in strong men.  A creed muttered in nominal unbelief is oxymoronic.  The word creed comes from the Latin, Credo, “I believe.”  A creedal church believes certain things to be true, and acts as though truth mattered.

We must remember our heritage.  We want to think that forgetting our duties somehow excuses us from our neglect in the performance of them.  But in Scripture, forgetting is an additional sin.  In our attempt to live creedlessly, we have forgotten the faith of our fathers.  We do this because we think our fathers are somehow detached and unconnected from us, and we think this for the trifling reason that these men are all now dead and we haven’t met them.

In the world God created, we actually live on the banks of a great cultural river, and those who live upstream from us affect us in countless ways.  For example, even this foolishness of modernity is still contained by categories of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, as much as modern folly rants against it.  The chains that bind them are orthodox chains.  Consequently, for most modern evangelicals , their sin is not yet really heresy, but rather ingratitude.  But the longer we persists in this ingratitude toward our fathers, the closer we drift to actual heresy and apostasy.  Many in the evangelical church are already there.

The modern church is a teenaged brat, full of angst and anger.  She rolls her eyes at the historical authority of her fathers.  She assumes that they had their lives and now she has hers.  She is indignant at the thought that her fathers, long since gone from the scene, could possibly have any kind of authority over her.  She wants to think that the placement of individuals in history is nothing more than a random number sequence, with no authority ever given to those who came before.  But the Lord of history placed them there with the command that they leave an inheritance for her.  Her duty is to receive that inheritance, build upon it, and become in turn a blessing to her covenantal grandchildren.  Then her children will rise up and called her blessed.

Some who may be reading this are building up quite a bit of froth around the edges of the mouth at this point, I’m sure.  “Does this not set the authority of the Bible aside”  No, not at all.  The doctrine of sola scriptura insists that the only infallible, ultimate authority is the Bible.  Now this short statement which points to the Bible is nowhere found in the Bible, but nonetheless provides us with a fine example of creedal testimony.  This short “creed” which tells us to look to the Bible demonstrates how creedal authority should actually work.  A creed should never confess its own authority without simultaneously confessing it as a lesser authority.

The Bible is clear that other spiritual authorities exist, but they are fallible and penultimate.  To go a step further, these lesser spiritual authorities are not just “allowed,” they are inescapable.  The question is not whether we will have them, but which of them we will have.  We do not understand that when we have removed all traces of Nicean orthodoxy, this does not leave us standing in a fresh meadow with a newly-discovered Bible, but rather with the latest heretical ballon juice cooked up down at the Knee-Deep-In-Glory Worship Center, which never met a wind of doctrine it didn’t like.

If we repent of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” we just may learn to love our fathers again.  That love will lead to a more thorough acquaintance with the old guard.  We will come to respect and honor those men who taught our brothers and sisters, and in so doing have left a testimony that teaches us to this day.

So, had enough of theological fads and fashions?  Are you sick of the Aerobics with the Angels class on Wednesday nights?  Are you tired of sermons that trifle with the truth?  Does your skin crawl when you walk into the local evangelical bookstore (“Step right up folks. Holy hardware!” “Get your Jesus Junk!”)?  Are you weary of the constant irrelevance of contemporary relevance?  Then welcome to evangelical orthodoxy.  We are glad to have you back home.

More to follow