Archive for September, 2009

Bullseye

Phil Johnson assesses neo-evangelicalism and nails it.

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A Savor of Death and of Life

Although I have a real interest in politics and contemporary issues, I don’t often make public comment on them simply because I don’t consider that my role as a pastor. However, there comes the occasional intersection of political reality and biblical morality that must be addressed. And, from time to time, something from the world of politics and contemporary culture just jumps out as an illustration that almost demands to be seized. I came across something like that today.

Ted Kennedy died last week, just days before his memoir is to be released. The death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquidick looms large over Kennedy’s legacy, so the fact that he addresses this in the memoir is sure to draw attention. The NYT article headline caught mine, “Kennedy Memoir Talks of Chappaquidick, J.F.K. and Other Presidents.” As is normal, there was lots of sizzle and little steak. Perhaps the book says more of significance than the article would suggest, but that’s doubtful—surely the details would be more newsworthy than the general admissions which are reported.

From a gospel perspective, what is recorded is truly sad. Here is the part that caught my attention:

Writing in his book “True Compass,” which is scheduled to be published on Sept. 14, Mr. Kennedy, who died a week ago, described his actions in the 1969 accident as “inexcusable” and said that at the time he was afraid, overwhelmed “and made terrible decisions.”

Mr. Kennedy said he had to live with the guilt of his actions for four decades but that Ms. Kopechne’s family had to endure worse. “Atonement is a process that never ends,” he writes.

Atonement is a process that never ends. Those words pressed on me a mixture of sadness and joy. Sadness because of the hopelessness of such thinking and at the deceptive destruction they inflict on the soul. Wrapped in those words is the foolish idea that we somehow can atone for our sins. Think about it—Kennedy still thought, apparently, he was in the process of atoning for this sin four decades after it happened. How can anybody ever hope to atone for a life of sins if atonement is like this? How sad that people live in such bondage and blindness.

But reading it also caused my heart to fill with joy precisely because Kennedy was completely wrong. Atonement for my sins isn’t a process that never ends; it happened at Calvary once and for all! This is a central part of Hebrews’ message—“but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb 9:26) and “so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many….” Here is real hope. Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Because He was God’s infinite Son, He could bear the full penalty for all our sins, satisfying God’s wrath against sin and making a full atonement for sin. A sinner cannot atone for his own sins, but a sinless One can! That’s why I love to sing this line from “Hallelujah! What a Savior:”

Guilty, vile, and helpless we, Spotless Lamb of God was He; Full atonement! Can it be? Hallelujah, what a Savior!

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All The News That’s Fit to Gawk At

The New York Times promotes itself by the slogan “All the news that’s fit to print” (a slogan that sounds tinny these days). I don’t think it takes much observation and reflection to conclude that the slogan for contemporary news agencies is closer to “All the news that’s fit to gawk at.” While there has always been subjectivity to the matter of determining what is newsworthy, can anybody doubt that mainstream news is becoming more and more like the tabloids?

Evidence for this conclusion abounds, but I was reminded of it recently by the attention given to the moron in Phoenix who, by his foolish words and actions, continues disgraces the name of Christ and discredit the office of pastor. This guy is a nobody with only the influence that YouTube affords him, yet he gets attention from the likes of CNN and Foxnews.

Webster says that “newsworthy” means “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting.” I guess judging the story out of Phoenix by this definition would require us to wrestle over what the range of meaning for “interesting” is—does it mean people will watch or click a link, or does it mean that they want to learn about it? I find it hard to believe that the general public is really wants to know what some kook in Phoenix says, but I have no doubt that just about any salacious headline about a pastor will attract some gawkers.

The reality is that that the news is no longer the news. In order to compete economically, it has become more like a carnival sideshow drawing crowds with the offer of a freak show. Stephen Anderson is just another bearded woman for the contemporary carnival show which disguises itself as the news. As I said in a previous post, the internet has brought many good things to our world, but access to every nutcase with video equipment is not one of them.

The devil must laugh up his sleeve at the intersection of our culture’s prurience, the greed of corporate newsmakers, and a self-absorbed, self-promoting preacher. Personally, it makes me both sad and angry—sad about what it reveals about our day and about the damage one bozo can do, and angry that the name of Christ is being dragged into the mud by this false prophet.

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The Limitations of the Classroom

The subject of whether new colleges and seminaries should be started comes up from time to time. Jon Pratt, from Central in Minneapolis tackles the questions of colleges here and seminaries here. He linked to an article in CT that addressed the new seminaries springing up in connection with “megachurches” as well. Two comments made in the CT article parallel things that I have said to prospective students for almost two decades now, so I’ll pass them along for your consideration as well.

The first addresses the issue whether the curriculum should be designed around methodological-practical concerns or remain focused on biblical-theological issues.

“What is interesting in the current trend is more of an attempt to start seminaries based on methodological affinities,” Yeats said, citing a Web-based seminary that relies heavily on the principles of Rick Warren’s bestseller The Purpose Driven Life.

The challenge, as Yeats sees it: building a seminary on contemporary methods more than on a short-term venture.

“Methodologies change,” he said. “What Southwestern and other more classically based seminaries seek to do is provide students opportunities to gain biblical competency.

“Are methods discussed? You bet,” said Yeats. “But at the end of the day, the only thing that will get a pastor through multiple seasons of ministry, as well as shifting methodologies meant to respond to changing cultures, is a solid understanding of the Word of God.”

The way I’ve explained over the years has been to remind current students that all of the “hot” ministry ideas when I started into seminary have faded away, so if my seminary education had focused on getting me prepared to implement them, then my education would have come with an expiration date. Instead, because I attended a seminary (DBTS) that focused on the things that don’t change, I was prepared for the long haul.

The second quote opens the door to how we can resolve the supposed tension between academic and practical aspects of a seminary education. The block below begins with words from Scott Thumma, who according to CT is “a megachurch expert and sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut:”

“The benefit of megachurches focusing on leadership training is that future clergy get experience in hands-on ministry in a vital, growing, and well-run congregation.”

At the heart of the shift, Yeats acknowledged, is a desire to see seminaries more connected to local congregations.

“The more connected a seminary,” he said, “the better the seminary can train pastors—even through traditional curriculums.”

The central point here is the importance of the local congregation. It was always a mistake, in my mind, to think that an educational institution can prepare men for the ministry. That responsibility belongs to the local assembly and educational institutions only function properly when they serve local churches in that task. I doubt that most people at stand alone educational institutions would disagree with that in theory, but I think most people at those educational institutions are kidding themselves if they can’t see that in most cases the institutions tend to tower over the local churches around them.

But getting into that debate isn’t my point. It is to say that nobody will be prepared for local church ministry by the classroom alone. The classroom serves a necessary function, but there are aspects of ministry preparation that demand real life participation in the local church. Anybody who has ever taken a personal evangelism course knows that getting an A by memorizing a bunch of verses and an outline for communicating the gospel doesn’t necessarily translate into a consistent practice of evangelism. Application of the truth that is learned in the classroom demands that the student move outside of the academic bubble into contact with real people in real life. That means active participation in the local church is necessary not only for obedience to the Lord, but for the exercise and development of spiritual gifts, the cultivation of godly relationships, and to learn how the church, which they are presumably hoping to lead one day, functions. The classroom is very important, but it is not enough to get a man ready to serve in the church.

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