Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

by R.C. Sproul

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters?1

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration.2

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?

It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism — because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.

He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

“A Chink in My Armor”

A Humble Call for Praying with Your Wife

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.—Ephesians 5:25-27

A little over two years ago, Teresa and I were being interviewed and assessed by the Evangelical Free Church. The interview was going quite well. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about myself. They had asked me all sorts of questions about my spiritual disciplines, and I was getting puffed up about how disciplined I was. Then came the question that humiliated me. They asked, “How often do you pray with your wife?” I responded that I pray for her often. I told them that I also pray with her and our children fairly frequently. They responded, “What we are asking you is how regular your prayer life with your wife is.”

I remember feeling like I had been exposed. I could not answer one of their questions with a sense of self-satisfaction. I now felt as naked as I did in those terrible childhood dreams where I was at school only to find I had no clothes on. I remembered the multiple times Teresa had said we should pray more together. I remember the pride in my heart that led to me not wanting to pray more because she had pointed out that we needed to. Finally, I responded that we don’t pray together regularly enough. I was humiliated!

In my pride, I tried to quickly put that incident out of my mind only to have it brought before me again this week. During our church planting boot camp, one of the trainers said he remembered stumbling over the question of how much he and his wife prayed together. Teresa innocently responded, “That happened to us too.” I was angry. I could not believe she would tell everyone this. I wondered why she would expose my failing in this area. Of course, she had done nothing wrong. She was merely stating a fact. On the way to lunch, I asked her, “Why would you expose me like that?” I continued, “You let everyone see a chink in my armor. At least, you could have let me tell them, so I would look humble as the one confessing it.”

God was gracious enough to let me hear the stupidity and ego-driven nature of my comments. I was not concerned with the fact that I was neglecting one of my duties as a husband. Instead, I was concerned with my reputation. I actually thought I had “armor” that only had one “chink” exposed. (Of course, I knew that others recognized some weaknesses, but they were weaknesses that I had some control over them seeing. This weakness was exposed by another). Immediately after I said this, Teresa and I both began laughing at the sheer arrogance of it.

We are called as husbands to love our wives as Christ loved the church. There are so many different lessons I could extract from this command given by God through His apostle. I want to focus, however, on the necessity of a husband praying for and with his wife. What keeps us from praying with our wives? Why is it that we do not participate in such a simple exercise that has such powerful implications? I think there are three reasons for this.

First, I think we do not pray with our wives because of sheer neglect of the command to love our wives as Christ loved the church. We do not really understand or take seriously our responsibility to be used of God to sanctify our wives. We are happy to call them to submit to our authority. However, we do not care to fulfill our responsibility. We treat our wives as if they are just another person who exists to help us arrange our lives in a manner that makes us most comfortable and self-satisfied.

Second, I think we do not pray for our wives because we do not want to submit ourselves to Christ’s headship in our home. We want to carry out our own will. We want to buy the items we desire. We want to make the decisions that please us. As in every other area of life, we want to be sovereign, rather than letting Christ be sovereign.

Third, I think we do not pray with our wives out of a sheer lack of personal humility. Biblical prayer may be the most humble position we ever take. In prayer, we express complete reliance upon God for everything. In prayer, we recognize that we are completely at the mercy of God. So when my wife tells me we should pray more, I begin to wrestle with doing it, lest I admit my dependency on God. Some may conclude that we can respond in this manner because we do not want our wives to be right. They argue that our response is motivated out of a lack of humility toward our wives. This is true in part. However, the full story is that we lack humility before God. God is using our wives to point out sin, and we struggle with this. We want to come to these realizations on our own. We do not want God to use others to point it out. If we do not come to the realization of our sin on our own, we can become quite embarrassed and angry because this robs us of the pride of figuring it out by ourselves. How perverse we really are!

Men, it is clear that God has called you to be the spiritual leader in your home. However, your spiritual leadership is submitted to the Lordship of Christ. You are to model your leadership after His. His leadership is a completely sacrificial one. His leadership is a radically humble one. His leadership has the sanctification of His church in mind. Our leadership needs to be likewise. We need to sacrifice our lives for our wives. We need to be humble before others, our wives, and before our God. We need to seek the sanctification of our wives. So, let us pray not only for our wives, but also with them. When we humble ourselves before God with our wives, they will see the head of their home whom they rejoice in submitting to!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Daily Dereliction

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
2 Timothy 4:1-2

I still remember sitting with some friends at Bob Brady’s kitchen table and discussing ministry philosophy. Bob is one of those men whom I see as an inspiration and encouragement of what should (and should not) drive the ministry of the church. As we were talking about some of the ministry methodologies that have been used in recent church history, Bob talked about his burden to see churches make proclamation of the Word the center of their ministries (my words, not his). During the conversation, he talked of a time he interviewed Dr. John MacArthur. Bob was part of a group of men who were studying growing churches. They wanted to know what it was the churches were doing that was causing so much growth. After asking what they do in the church, Bob said that Dr. MacArthur emphatically answered, “Preach the Word, preach the Word, preach the Word!”

The conviction that the Word of God is really sufficient for all of life and godliness is not a popular one in the Church today. Many think that those who believe the Word is truly sufficient are short sighted and narrow-minded. They generally continue with the accusation that those who hold to this view of ministry want to exalt the pulpit and detract from other important ministries. While this accusation is sheer nonsense, it has taken hold in many church communities. It has gained such a strong hold that other methodologies for life change are now embraced unwittingly in the Church.

In the realm of worship, the serious in-depth preaching of the Word is being replaced by dramas, videos, corporate sharing times, and other activities that seem more appropriate for an entertainment driven culture (I am not saying all of these methods of communication are necessarily useless, just that they cannot and should not replace serious preaching of the Word of God). We now see corporate worship as a time for either fellowship or evangelistic outreach, rather than for the exaltation of Christ and the equipping of the saints through God’s Word. Too much serious biblical preaching is now seen as something that deters unbelievers from coming to church. It is also seen as something that is too serious and thus saps a sense of fellowship from the room (The preacher often hears this reflected in the comment, “You need to lighten things up a bit—that was too serious”).

In the realm of personal piety, the serious in-depth preaching of the Word is being replaced by small groups, teaching of popular books, pop-psychology, and all manner of programmed events in the church (Again, I am not saying these are necessarily useless, just that they cannot and should not replace serious preaching of the Word of God). We no longer see the Word of God as the tool the Spirit uses to effectually call and sanctify his people. We see this best represented by the constant tendency to run headlong into the latest fad for effective ministry. We often hear the Word downplayed through the accusation that corporate worship is the “most ineffective time of ministry.” While small groups and various other programs are helpful, unless the Word is the central focus, these activities are no more life changing than a group of unbelievers hanging out at Starbucks.

Contemporary Christian counseling is similarly plagued by this abandonment of the Word. The Church is assimilating secular psychology into its vocabulary of how people change with a fervor to be matched only by its sprint away from the controversy over taking a stand on biblical doctrines. The pastor is no longer supposed to be a man of the Word, but a great manager of events and a therapist. The hurting church member is no longer encouraged to employ biblical means of sanctification, but is now sent to professional counselors. I have not personally attended a marriage conference where the Bible was taught, sin was seriously discussed, and the gospel was held out as our only hope for true marital reconciliation (and I have attended about 6 marriage conferences). The shepherds are now leading the sheep away from the green pastures of God’s Word to the fast food restaurants of contemporary American evangelicalism. The sheep get their fill of food that tastes good, but that is ultimately unhealthy.

I do not believe most evangelical pastors are intentionally leading their people away from a life of true worship and godliness. Instead, I believe pastors have often bought the same bill of goods they are now selling. I have been a victim of this thinking myself (and I am sure that it penetrates my thinking in areas I don’t yet recognize). I want to be clear, however, that this is a deadly serious problem! Satan will use whatever tool he can marshal to undo God’s church. The weapon he now yields is our confidence in our own wisdom, and a correlative lack of confidence in the wisdom of God. Satan will use our own pride in the ways and ability of man to destroy us. If Satan can daily turn us from absolute dependence on the Spirit to work through the means of his Word, he will lead us into the undoing of the Church. I believe David Wells stated it best in his book, “Above All Earthly Pow’rs,” when he said,

For it is certainly the case that the Word of God, read or preached, has the power to enter the innermost crevices of a person’s being, to shine light in unwanted places, to explode myths and deceits by which fallen life sustains itself, and to bring that person face to face with the eternal God. It is this biblical Word which God uses to bring repentance, to excite faith, to give new life, to sustain life once given, to correct, nurture, and guide the Church (Jer. 23:29; 2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12; Jas. 1:18). The biblical Word is self-authenticating under the power of the Holy Spirit. This Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do. This is why the dearth of serious, sustained biblical preaching in the church today is a serious matter. When the church loses the Word of God it loses the very means by which God does his work. In its absence, therefore, a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.

I want to end with a note of caution for those of us that think we have our theological ducks in a row on this issue: Be careful to practice in your life what you preach among friends who are similarly dissatisfied with the contemporary Church’s current weaknesses. It is entirely too easy to notice the speck in your brother’s eye and not notice the plank in your own. If you really believe the Word is sufficient for life and godliness, then your life will reflect a constant turning to and hunger for the Word. If your mind shouts, “yes,” to my theological argumentation but your daily dependence on the Word shouts, “no,” then repentance is more in line than finger pointing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Guide to Praying the Lord's Prayer

I am teaching on prayer in membership this Sunday and wrote this guide for the class.

7 Presuppositions of Biblical Prayer:
1. Prayer is for the approval of God and not man. Is your prayer life as fervent privately as it is publicly? Matthew 6:5-6.
2. Prayer is continuous throughout the day and in concentrated periods. Is time set aside in your day for prayer? Are you constantly looking to him for help and intimacy? Matthew 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
3. Prayer is persistent while trusting God already knows what you need. Are you trusting the Lord’s promise to provide your needs enough to persistently come before him asking him to do so? Matthew 6:7-8; Luke 11:5-10.
4. Prayer trusts God is seeking your good. Do you believe the Lord really is seeking your good? Are you willing to trust he is providing for your good in every circumstance? Matthew 7:9-11; Romans 8:28.
5. Prayer understands that Jesus is always interceding for you. Does Jesus’ constant intercession for you spur you onto to increased confidence in prayer? Romans 8:34.
6. Prayer doesn’t always know what to ask for but trusts the Holy Spirit is praying in our weakness. Are you willing to come to God in prayer even when you don’t know what to ask for? Do you trust he is helping you in this weakness? Romans 8:26-27.
7. Prayer is in accordance with God’s Word and for his glory. Are you meditating on God’s Word and asking God to apply it to your heart? Are you growing in biblical knowledge you can have better informed prayers? John 14:13-14; 15:7; James 4:3; 1 John 5:14-15.

3 Principles for Addressing God in Prayer:
1. Prayer is addressed to the God who is imminent, near to us, and cares for our daily needs. Do you come to God desiring to be at the feet of your Father who loves you? Matthew 6:9; 6:25-32.
2. Prayer is addressed to the God who is transcendent, holy, glorious, and all-powerful. Do you come to pray with humility knowing you don’t deserve to be in the holy presence of God and can do nothing to convince him otherwise? Matthew 6:9; Isaiah 66:1-3; 1 Timothy 6:15-16.
3. Prayer is addressed to our Dad who has adopted us in Christ. Is the Gospel on the forefront of your mind every time you pray? Matthew 6:9; Galatians 4:4-6.

6 Petitions in Prayer:

1. Pray for God’s Name to be set apart as holy. Matthew 6:9.

a. Study the Word to know the God who reveals himself.
b. Meditate on God’s attributes every day.
c. Pray that the glorious God you know will be known as glorious among all peoples.

2. Pray for God’s Kingdom to come. Matthew 6:10

3 ways we should pray for God’s Kingdom to come:

a. Pray for God’s kingdom of grace to spread in our hearts.

i. Pray our self-righteousness is replaced by the realization that we are completely spiritually bankrupt. Matthew 5:3
ii. Pray our loathing of suffering is replaced by rejoicing in the fellowship of Christ's suffering. Matthew 5:10-12; Romans 5:3; Philippians 1:29, 3:10.
iii. Pray our pursuit of self-protection and comfort is traded for the pursuit of righteousness. Matthew 6:33
iv. Pray our deepest treasure is no longer found in the riches of this world, but in the riches of Christ. Matthew 13:44-46
v. Pray our half-hearted and weak devotion will be replaced by confident and thankful worship. Hebrews 12:28

b. Pray for God’s kingdom of grace to spread in the hearts of others.

i. We must pray for God to raise up people to send into the mission field. Matt. 9:37-38
ii. We must pray that God will open a door for the Gospel for our missionaries and our church, asking that they would make the Word clear. Col. 4:3
iii. We must pray that Word will be honored and that our missionaries and church will be delivered from evil men. 2 Thess. 3:1-2
iv. We must pray our missionaries and our church will remain strong in the spiritual battle they are in and that they will have boldness to speak the Word. Eph. 6:18-20

c. Pray for God’s kingdom of glory to come finally and fully. Luke 18:1-8

3. Pray for God’s Will to be done. Matthew 6:10

a. Study the God’s Word asking him to help you grow holy. Psalm 119:9-11
b. Meditate on God’s Word asking him to give you wisdom. James 1:5
c. Pray for God to regenerate others so they will obey him. Ezekiel 36:25-27

4. Pray for our physical needs to be met. Matthew 6:11

a. Ask God for what is necessary for each day. He knows what we need and promises to provide. Matthew 6:11, Matthew 7:7-11, Matthew 6:25-34, Phil. 4:19.
b. Ask God for what is necessary to keep us humble and bring him glory. He has provided us with abundance so we can enjoy it and be generous to others, not so we will trust in it and deny Him. Proverbs 30:7-9, Luke 12:13-21, 1 Timothy 6:17-19, James 4:2-3.
c. Ask God for the needs of others. Jesus did not teach us to pray, "Give me this day my daily bread," but "Give us this day our daily bread." Matthew 6:11

5. Pray for our spiritual needs to be met. Matthew 6:12

a. Confess your sins and trust God to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9
b. Confess the sins of the church and ask God to forgive us.
c. Forgive others as God in Christ has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:32

6. Pray for our moral needs to be met. Matthew 6:13

9 truths we should recognize and pray in the area of temptation and tests:

a. We have a fundamental distrust of ourselves and we pray to God to not lead us into trials that Satan will use to bring us into sin. Matt. 6:13

b. We recognize we can’t stand against him alone and we pray for God to deliver us from evil! Matt. 6:13

c. We thank God for our trials recognizing they will make us more like Jesus. James 1:2-4

d. We ask God in faith for wisdom in the midst of trials, so that Satan cannot turn the trial into an occasion for sin. James 1:5

e. We trust the faithfulness of God amidst trials and temptation and pray he will show us the way of escape he promises to provide. 1 Cor. 10:13

f. We submit to God’s Word and ask him to help us to rightly apply it in all circumstances. James 4:7, Eph. 6:17, Matt. 4

g. We pray for one another to stand strong in temptation and never think we are unable to fall into the same sin our brother has. Gal. 6:1, Matt. 6:13

h. We pray for God’s will to be done in every circumstance and not our own, no matter the temptation to want our own way. Matt. 26:39

i. We thank God continually for the fact that Jesus was faithful under every trial and in every temptation. Heb. 4:15

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jelly-Fish Pastors and Christians

JC Ryle wrote the following about the lack of doctrinal commitment in the late 1800's:

[Dislike of dogma] is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and specially among young people.... It produces what I must venture to call...a "jelly-fish" Christianity in the land: that is, a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power. A jelly-fish...is a pretty and graceful object when it floats in the sea, contracting and expanding like a little, delicate, transparent umbrella. Yet the same jelly-fish, when cast on the shore, is a mere helpless lump, without capacity for movement, self-defense, or self-preservation. Alas! It is a vivid type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, "No dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine." We have hundreds of "jelly-fish" clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have not definite opinions; they belong to no school or party; they are so afraid of "extreme views" that they have no views at all. We have thousands of "jelly-fish" sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint. We have Legions of "jelly-fish" young men annually turned out from our Universities, armed with a few scraps of second-hand philosophy, who think it a mark of cleverness and intellect to have no decided opinions about anything in religion, and to be utterly unable to make up their minds as to what is Christian truth. They live apparently in a state of suspense, like Mohamet's fabled coffin, hanging between heaven and earth...and last, and worst of all, we have myriads of "jelly-fish" worshippers-respectable Church-going people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than color-blind people can distinguish colors. They think everybody is right and nobody wrong, everything is true and nothing is false, all sermons are good and none are bad, every clergyman is sound and no clergyman is unsound. They are "tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine"; often carried away by any new excitement and sensational movement; ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old; and utterly unable to "render a reason of the hope that is in them." ...Never was it so important for laymen to hold systematic views of truth, and for ordained ministers to "enunciate dogma" very clearly and distinctly in their teaching.

(HT: Tim Challies)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Should we Go on Sinning so Grace may Abound?

There is a story about Tetzel, the Dominican monk who went around sixteenth-century Germany selling indulgences and scandalizing Martin Luther. He used to sing a little ditty: "As soon as your money falls into my casket, your soul leaps free from the fires of Purgatory!"

A thief came up to him and asked how much it would cost for an indulgence to forgive all his past sins. "A thousand gold pieces." "And how much for one to forgive all my future sins as well?" "Two thousand more." "All right, here's three thousand. Give me the indulgence." "Here it is. Thank you." "And now here's one of those future sins. See this sword? Hand back the three thousand."

Peter Kreeft, Heaven, pages 186-187.

(HT: Ray Ortlund)

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Love of Christ Compels me...

Here is a great quote from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

". . . The secret of the early Christians, the early Protestants, Puritans and Methodists was that they were taught about the love of Christ, and they became filled with a knowledge of it. Once a man has the love of Christ in his heart you need not train him to witness; he will do it. He will know the power, the constraint, the motive; everything is already there. It is a plain lie to suggest that people who regard this knowledge of the love of Christ as the supreme thing are useless, unhealthy mystics. The servants of God who have most adorned the life and the history of the Christian Church have always been men who have realized that this is the most important thing of all, and they have spent hours in prayer seeking His face and enjoying His love. The man who knows the love of Christ in his heart can do more in one hour than the busy type of man can do in a century. God forbid that we should ever make of activity an end in itself. Let us realize that the motive must come first, and that the motive must ever be the love of Christ.

I end with the question which I asked at the beginning: To which of the circles do you belong? Are you pressing your way right into the centre? . . .

Are we pressing into the innermost circle? Are we seeking the Lord's face? Are we coveting the knowledge of His love? The Apostle prayed for every single member of the Church at Ephesus that he or she 'might be able to comprehend with all saints what is the length and breadth and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.' How tragic it is that any of us should be living as paupers, out on the cold street, while the banqueting chamber is open and the feast prepared. Let us search for the knowledge of the Lord in the Scriptures and read about it in the lives of the saints throughout the centuries. As we do so, we shall never be content until we are in the innermost circle and looking into His blessed face."

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. An Exposition of Ephesians 3: The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979, pp.247-253.

(HT: Adrian Warnock)

Friday, March 6, 2009

How do you preach to men who can't come to Christ?

Here is a great quote from "Rabbi" John Duncan...a reformed missionary with a great ministry among the Jews:

"It would not do to tell a man that he may come to Christ, but that he must come. Some, indeed, would have man to do all, though he could do nothing; and others would have him to do nothing, because all was done for him.

As long as I am told that I must come to God, and that I can come, I am left to suppose that some good thing, or some power of good remains in me, and I arrogate to myself that which belongs to Jehovah. The creature is exalted, and God is robbed of His glory.

If, on the other hand, I am told that I cannot come to God, but not also that I must come, I am left to rest contented at a distance from God, I am not responsible for my rebellion, and God Jehovah is not my God.

But if we preach that sinners can't come, and yet must come, then is the honour of God vindicated, and the sinner is shut up. Man must be so shut up that he must come to Christ, and yet know that he cannot. He must come to Christ, or he will look to another, when there is no other to whom he may come; he cannot come, or he will look to himself.

This is the gospel vice, to shut up men to the faith. Some grasp at one limb of the vice and some at the other, leaving the sinner open - but when a man is shut up that he must and cannot, he is shut up to the faith - shut up to the faith, and then would he be shut up in the faith. God is declared to be Jehovah, and the sinner is made willing to be saved by Him, in His own way, as sovereign in His grace."

(HT: John Piper)

Why I push Greek and Hebrew on Ministerial Candidates...

"Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David's Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?"

John Wesley, "An Address to the Clergy," in Works X:491

(HT: Ray Ortlund)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

How knowing God is Your Only Hope Changes You

5 ways knowing that God paid the penalty of sin and broke the power of sin in your life effects your heart:

1. It humbles you as you recognize God Did It and not you…therefore putting a sword through the heart of your self-righteousness.

2. It causes your gaze to turn upward to Christ and not inward to you!

3. It empowers you to pursue holiness by grace!

4. It removes your constant burden of seeking God’s approval and causes rejoicing in your heart!

5. It brings God the glory he rightly deserves for the gracious work he has done!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Misplaced Humility

"What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert -- himself."

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter three, "The Suicide of Thought."

(HT: Ray Ortlund)