Devouring the Grandchildren

21 May 2019

A doctrine is like a painting. It’s possible for it to be inaccurate–a landscape painter putting a lighthouse on the edge of the Grand Canyon, for example. On the other hand, even an accurate painting is not a perfect representation. You have to know what to pay attention to. You don’t criticize a painting of the Grand Canyon because the real Grand Canyon doesn’t have brush strokes on the rocks. You don’t look at a Monet and think, “Gee, that feller needed glasses.”

Likewise doctrine. An accurate doctrinal formulation will give you a correct impression of the acts of God that it is describing, but there will always be picky little details that aren’t exact representations. You gotta know how to look at the painting without picking at the brush strokes. The best way to do that is to experience the doctrine for yourself. Once you have firsthand knowledge of the ways of God that the doctrine describes, once you have incarnated the doctrine in practice, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And as it happens, that was the point anyway. Doctrine is not there just to think about; it’s an aid to loving God and your neighbor. It’s meant to be lived.

When a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has himself experienced it, and seen it at work in the world, God’s people are greatly edified. This is often true even if the doctrinal formulation is…shall we say, a bit impressionistic. People usually still get the main point, and are blessed.

By contrast, when a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has not experienced it for himself at any depth, it is worse than useless: it is dead. The propositional content may be correct, but nonetheless, it is dead, and as all dead things do, it begins to rot, and provide a breeding ground for maggots.

The doctrine of divine election, for example, is indeed “an unspeakable comfort to godly persons,” as the Westminster divines put it—if it is expounded as Luther or Calvin expounded it. In them, as C. S. Lewis explains, the feeling is unspeakable, scarcely believable joy. It is the joy of the lover who has been chosen by his beloved, regardless of merit, despite all flaws, to have been loved and chosen! And to be assured that the choosing is irrevocable, irreversible! What joy!

Now, I believe that the doctrine of election as taught by Luther and Calvin is a bit impressionistic. Their formulation suffers from serious exegetical and theological flaws. But the experience of relationship with God that they were pointing to is real enough. Expounded with the joy and trust in God that Luther or Calvin had, even their flawed formulations can do quite a bit of good, and little enough harm.

On the other hand, when those same formulations are proclaimed in doubt, with some question as to whether one is chosen, it does incalculable harm. The result is a paranoid, frantic search for many tests or proofs that might allow someone to attain (at least theoretical) certainty—as required by the late New England Puritans, or in modern times by, say, a John MacArthur or a John Piper. The speaker is often himself somewhat unsure of his election, and the hearers pick up on his fear. They understand, at least unconsciously, that this is a terrifying doctrine, because they are hearing it from a terrified man. Soon enough, the terror comes to the surface, and the resulting view of God—petty, autocratic, using eternal human destinies as His personal plaything—is an awful slander, in Lewis’ words, “something not unlike devil worship.”

Now, Luther and Calvin could expound divine election with joy because they were chosen, and they knew it. Despite their propositional errors, their basic understanding of their relationship with God was correct. He did, in fact, love them and conspire to save them before the foundation of the world. When they believed, He did bring them into His family irrevocably, and give them life that would last forever. In all this they were entirely correct, and crucially, they did not just know these things by syllogism. They knew them by experience, by knowing God for themselves and hearing Him in their own souls. Thus fortified, they taught God’s love with joy. (As similarly joyful Reformed folk do to this day.)

But their formulations were somewhat in error, and as the generations ran on, the errors became apparent. The doctrine of election was not an unspeakable comfort; it was a terror to many tortured souls who did not know if they were chosen—indeed, many of them were taught that in this life, they could never know if they had been chosen. This doctrine, despite the joy of Luther and Calvin, devoured its great-grandchildren. This was a sign that something was wrong, and needed to be fixed.

Instead of revisiting their formulations to see what might have gone awry, too many Reformed folks have doubled down, willingly sacrificing their terrified children on the altar of their doctrinal rectitude. All the non-Calvinists reading this are no doubt nodding their heads and thinking, “Well, such are the dangers of erroneous doctrine.” Do you imagine yourself to be perfect? Do you think you got it all right, that there are no fuzzy little corners in your doctrine? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course there are—and so you have an opportunity to make the same mistake.

None of our doctrinal formulations–however correct–are immune to this danger. If ignorant and unstable people can twist even the Scriptures to their own destruction–and Peter says they can (2 Peter 3:16)–then how much more might they exaggerate the flaws of our all too fallible doctrinal formulations?

The cure–the only possible safeguard against dead, rotting doctrine–is to know God for ourselves, and not just from books. This is also the very definition of life: “to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”

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Jesus Is Not A Multilevel Marketing Scheme

30 April 2019

Some people think of disciple-making as the ultimate MLM scheme. You find a good mentor, build a downline…but no. That’s not how it works. Jesus is not running a multi-level marketing company.

Among the followers of Jesus, disciple-making influence is more of a “one another” kind of thing. We love one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Encourage one another. Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds. When God gives me a newbie to disciple, part of my job is to grow him from dependent to peer, and quick. The harvest is plentiful, and I need help!

Through Paul, God gave us a genius mechanism for doing that job: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” You can’t just teach people. You have to invite them into your life.

See, just teaching allows you to hold people at a comfortable distance. You can be the leader, the professional, the guru, and they are the follower, the client, the acolyte. But we’re Christians. That’s not what we do.

Paul’s example shows us another way. I call it the “open a vein” school of discipleship. We invite them into our lives, not just as learners but as coworkers, as friends, as family. Make no mistake, this calls for deep integrity. If I don’t practice what I preach, the closer they get to me, the more repelled they’ll be. Being a person who can imitate Paul’s example by calling someone to imitate me is a very high calling.

And you know what? No matter how deep my integrity goes, I guarantee you that when I invite someone into my life like this, he’s going to see my sin, my weaknesses, my failures. I’m not perfect, and my disciples aren’t stupid. The sin is there, and they’re gonna catch me out. Of course they will.

Here’s the thing: that is not a bug; it’s a design feature. The instruction and accountability do not just flow one way; we do these things for one another. God speaks to and through my disciples, and they’re worth hearing. I grow in response to their correction the same way they grow in response to mine–and *that* is a critical part of the example they’re following.

Many years ago and far from here, I once asked a roomful of older pastors, “Haven’t you had the experience of a baby Christian asking why you did something or calling you out–and them being totally right, and you being totally wrong?” They all looked at me blankly…and I permanently crossed every last one of those men off my list of advisors.

I had occasion to work closely with a few of those folks over the years, and they proved to be everything I suspected on the basis of that single interaction: professionalized, dictatorial, unhearing, unteachable. And man, were they hypocritical! The more so because no one could tell them. They wouldn’t hear anything you said if they “outranked” you.

There was no “one another” with those guys, and they were the poorer for it. Go thou, and do un-likewise.


Ditching the Whitelist

19 April 2019

Modernism fancied all spiritual powers a delusion. Nothing was real but matter in motion. The vast majority of contemporary Christians have adopted that worldview, with the exception of a whitelist of powers and miracles in which they feel obliged to believe in order to be Christian.

(As I’ve explored elsewhere, how many of those powers and miracles we feel obliged to believe depends to a large degree on how much academic credibility we aspire to.)

But this is not the teaching of Christianity. Christianity has always believed that the old gods are absolutely real—and that we are at war with them. Their heads are to be crushed; their images burned; their sacred groves cut down: Boniface had the right idea. Their followers are to be called to repentance, delivered from their willing slavery to the darkness into the freedom of the light.

On too many occasions over the past 2000 years, impatient Christians have tried to deliver the slaves by force, whether they wanted to be delivered or not. By now we have—let us hope—learned our lesson. The weapons of our warfare are most assuredly weapons, but they are not the carnal weapons of coercion. Our weapons are truth and righteousness, faith and salvation, readiness with the gospel of peace and the word of the Creator Himself, spoken afresh by us.

We live as invaders among the gods and their people. With word and water, bread, wine, and oil, we retake the territory unlawfully stolen from the Creator and prostituted to demons. Our ally is the whole creation that groans with birth pangs, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God.

Christianity is both relationship and religion. Without the relationship, the religion is empty. Without the religion, the relationship is confined to occasional experiences that, while beautiful in themselves, find no tangible expression in everyday life.

The relationship must be real. This is neither a thought experiment (“What if…?”), an arrangement of mental furniture (“I like to think of it like this”), nor a matter of observing principles (which would collapse relationship into religion). It is a real dealing with a particular Person (three, actually) outside ourselves. That means that we carry out our lives in the living presence of Almighty God. That Person births us into His new family, and thereafter grows us up as His children, with the goal of making us partakers of His divine nature. We engage in dialog; we ask for and receive help; we receive comfort and offer up praise. If we are not mystics in this sense, then we are not Christians; we are merely ideologues whose preferred genre is religion.

Now, with that said, what must the religion look like that gives tangible expression to such a relationship?

In order to function in this environment, we need a religious expression that…

  • embraces the magical nature of the created, spoken world in which we live,
  • addresses the spiritual realities of both human and angelic/demonic realms,
  • integrates empirical knowledge of the fertile fields of natural revelation, and
  • is concrete, livable, and permeates our daily lives.

So what does that look like? Well, that’s the project. I’m workin’ on it. Wanna join in?


What Fellowship Really Is

16 April 2019

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
-Hebrews 10:26-27

Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.

In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.

Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.

You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.

You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.

Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.

So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?

Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?

I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)

Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.

Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.

As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.

Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.

Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.

And that’s a wonderful thing.


On Disrespecting the Manure

12 April 2019

One of the most basic promises of Christianity is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His continuing ministry to the believer. Every church and ministry I’ve ever worked with has affirmed this…in theory. In practice, there was a bit more variation. The idea that you could have a meaningful and vital relationship with a spiritual being–not just a doctrinal system or an arrangement of mental furniture, but actual person that is not you, communicating to you–well, that was challenging for a lot of folks. In many churches and ministries, they tended to cover their asses with an orthodox doctrinal statement on the point, while denying any instance of it in practice. They all believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but tell them that He showed you something in Hebrews 2 an hour ago and they don’t believe it.

When interacting with such communities, believers with a more robust relationship with the Spirit often point to John 16:13:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

The objection we often face in response is, “That was referring to the apostles, the people Jesus was talking to at the time.” On the face of it, the claim has some curb appeal. It draws directly from the context–who could argue with that? 

Well…me. I have questions:

  1. Sez who? On what basis? Can I use that same approach to dismiss anything Jesus ever said that I don’t want to apply now? (“I mean, sure, He said lust is as bad as adultery, but that was only for the people He was talking to at the time….”) No? Okay, distinguish that case from this one.
  2. We’re ready enough to apply 14:2, 14:27, or 15:13-14 to any believer, anytime, with no discussion whatsoever. We do this because Jesus is speaking to these men as “His own;” we are also His own, and in fact inviting us to become His own is kinda what the book is about. So on what principle are we so ready to read 16:13 differently from other things Jesus said to the same people in the same immediate context?
  3. These folks usually want to apply 16:13 to the men in the room…and Paul. The interpretation proposed flatly excludes him, and he’s a clear counterexample. How is this not blatant special pleading?
  4. 1 John 2:27. From where I’m standing, John directly applies the doctrine Jesus gave in John 16:13 to his readers, extending it well beyond the apostolic circle. If we needed some extraordinary justification for reading 16:13 the way we already read, say, 15:13-14, isn’t John providing it?

I want to set forth a positive case for reading this passage as speaking about something that happens for us, today, if we are listening. Most of my case is implicit in the questions above.

Jesus is speaking to His own, talking about what it will be like when the Spirit has come. He told His disciples, one of whom–John–preserved those words and wrote them down in a book that invites its readers to join in that group and become “His own” too. John’s Gospel invites believers into a lively relationship with the Spirit.

John reiterates that stance toward relationship with the Spirit–and this particular aspect of the Spirit’s guidance in our search for truth–in 1 John 2:27, for yet another group of addressees; so why shouldn’t we expect Him to do the same for all those who belong to Jesus, right down to today?

I have no doubt that a suitably educated theologian could apply his theological system or his scholarly skepticism in such a way as to bury the above two paragraphs under a mountain of doubt. It is also possible to bury a diamond under a wheelbarrow-load of manure. This does not call into question the nature of the diamond; it just reveals the guy with the wheelbarrow for a churl and a lackwit.

As the diamond does not cease being a diamond, a true reading of Jesus’ words does not cease being true, no matter what is being heaped upon it. We are not obliged to treat the manure with respect.

 


Not in the Atonement?

5 April 2019

I’m not going to name names here, but I was browsing about the interwebs a bit ago, and I ran across the website of a school that in general, I think well of. I began to read through their doctrinal statement (yes, I know, I have an odd idea of fun), and came upon this chestnut:

God can heal but physical healing is not in the atonement. God heals miraculously today when it is His perfect will to do so. Healing cannot be claimed through the guarantee of the atonement. At times it is God’s will for sickness not to be removed.

Now, I understand what they’re trying to guard against. Suppose a believer goes to a healing service, is told that Jesus died for him and his healing is included in the atonement, is prayed for, and then send home to “claim his healing.” What happens if he’s not healed? Does that mean his sins have not been atoned for either? He begins to wonder, “Why am I not being healed?” And one of the obvious answers is, “Maybe I’m not really saved!” Then all the doubts come pouring in, and the last state of the man is worse than the first. (This is not some churchlady’s imaginary danger, by the way. It actually happens, and it’s a real pastoral disaster.)

This school rightly values every believer’s assurance of salvation, and it’s awesome that they’re going out of their way to head this kind of nonsense off at the pass.

Problem is, with the best of intentions, they’re propagating a lie. “Physical healing is not in the atonement,” is certainly one way of doing the theological math so as to guard against this kind of doubt-inducing situation. But the Bible doesn’t say that.

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed Him smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.

How’s that again? By His stripes we are made righteous? By His stripes we are justified? No. By His stripes we are healed. (Psalm 103:3 would also be relevant here.)

Now either that means exactly what it says—and in a passage famously about the atonement, too—or…wait, no, there’s no second option. We believe the Bible; the right thing to do is swallow hard and revise our theology.

On reflection, it won’t be all that hard.

We all agree that the atonement in Jesus Christ is the answer–the whole answer–to the sin problem. At the cross, Jesus bought the right to justify us (declare us righteous), and moreover, to sanctify us until we really are entirely righteous, and to heal the damage we have done to ourselves, and each other, and our world with our sin—the whole bit. God is just and the justifier of the ungodly, through Jesus alone.

In the end, it won’t just be our spirits that are redeemed; He will redeem our bodies too. In fact, He will resurrect the entire world, a new heaven and earth without sin and its effects. When He does that, there will be no pain, no sickness, and so on, just as surely as there will be no sin. How dare God do that? God committed this world to our dominion; we committed sin and visited its consequences on the world; what gives a just God the right to erase the consequences of our freely chosen actions?

The atonement, that’s what. God’s authority to eradicate sickness along with all sin’s other effects was established at the cross, when the Seed of the Woman crushed the serpent’s head, and cried “It is finished!” And so it was. Nothing else need be, or could be, added. So let us have no silly nonsense about how healing is not in the atonement. It could hardly be anywhere else.

And if that is the case, then there is nothing stopping God from exercising that same right today, on the basis of the atonement. That said, He plainly does not always do so. What’s that about?

Once upon a time, Jesus said that He came to set the captives free. He went about, ministering, while His cousin John languished in Herod’s prison. Eventually, John sent messengers: “Are you the Messiah, or not?” Reading between the lines, I hear: “If you came to set the captives free, and you’re the real deal, then why am I still stuck in here?”

Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news. And blessed is the one who is not offended because of Me.” In other words, “Yes, of course I’m the real deal — look around! But don’t get mad when I don’t do things the way you thought I would.”

The prayer is “Thy kingdom come” not “my kingdom come.” It’s His kingdom, and it comes in His way and His time. We know what the consummation will look like (kinda); we don’t know what God is going to give us today, what He’ll do tomorrow, and what we’ll have to wait longer to see. And so healing is most assuredly in the atonement, as sanctification is in the atonement. But its achievement in experiential reality is a process, and God superintends the process. We have to trust Him with it. If I’m not healed today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, not doubt my salvation.

And if I’m sick today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, and ask for healing: “thy kingdom come.”


Where Socialism Fails

22 March 2019

Here’s George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier:

Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that nobody could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Orwell is right. If there’s plenty of provisions for everybody, and if everybody does their fair share of the work and gets their fair share of the provisions, then what could be the problem? What decent person wouldn’t want that?

If.

And that’s where the whole project falls apart. On a life raft with two likeminded people on it, the system might work okay. But it just doesn’t scale, and the bigger and more heterogeneous the group, the worse it falls apart. Everybody will not do their fair share of the work, no matter how we define “fair.” Humans fail. Humans succumb to laziness and stupidity. And this goes double when they’re guaranteed no reward for working extra hard or being particularly innovative, and punished with no lack for doing nothing, or wasting precious community resources on a poorly-thought-through experiment. Actual implementations of socialism are famous for that last one, actually.

Second, and perhaps more important—who will “see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions”? Who decides? Who has the authority to decide what you, personally, ought to do today? Who decides when you’ve contributed enough, and you can go home? Who decides if you can enjoy a beer after work? What if you want two? Who decides how much food, medical care, housing, etc., you get? What if you want more? What if you don’t like your job and quit? As Alfred P. Doolittle famously observed, those who won’t work don’t eat any less, and they drink a lot more. What about that?

This is where the whole scheme is inevitably totalitarian. In order to have the socialism Orwell so ably describes, we have to enthrone someone to decide. Some magistrate, commissar, board, commission–some Caesar, some human being with pretensions of deity will decide what your “fair share” of the work is, and what your “fair share” of the provisions will be. If the history of socialism has taught us anything at all, it is this: that position will attract the most corrupt, petty, hypocritical, and pretentious martinets in the whole society. They will abuse their positions to fatten themselves and their friends at the expense of the rest of us.

That’s what happens every single time—read a history book!—and every single time, there’s a chorus of eternal optimists who say “they didn’t implement it properly” and want to try again, this time with your health and prosperity at stake. You know what? No, they didn’t implement it properly—and nobody ever will. Human beings are not angels, and power attracts the corruptible.

And so I oppose socialism because Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. God has not delegated to Caesar the right to make these decisions–and we should not render to Caesar what does not belong to him. I oppose socialism because I am a Christian, and so should every Christian worthy of the name.