Tag Archives: Christianity

Handling Ministry Failure

Pastor Joshua Wilson writes about losing a church plant. “I believe the Spirit prepared me for the church’s demise, and gave great comfort as this season in our lives came to an end. However, I was already plagued by a thought that would not be easy to erase: I had failed.

What do you do when, despite your best efforts, your ministry fails? “What happens when you put your hand to the plow,” he asks, “but the visible outcome of what you do is meager or nonexistent?”

Empty Pews

Evangelicalism in America

Ed Stetzer writes, “For Evangelicalism, the Sky Is Not Falling but the Ground Is Shifting.” It’s one in a series on Evangelicalism in America.

Stetzer says, “Recently, I interviewed Rodney Stark, one of the nation’s leading sociologists, and asked him about the state of Evangelicalism today. He was perfectly blunt. ‘I think the notion that they’re shrinking is stupid. And it’s fiddling with the data in quite malicious ways. I see no such evidence.'”

In his article, Carl Trueman explains, “Conservative Evangelicalism may be more robust in terms of recruitment than other Christian alternatives at this point but it looks singularly ill-equipped to face the challenges of the coming days. It simply lacks the identity and the resources that come with historic rootedness, a point which makes it perennially vulnerable to becoming simply American culture in a Christian idiom.”

91 New Theses Opposing Modern Heresy

Earlier this year, I was going over Martin Luther’s 95 theses, and it occurred to me that many of them apply to the teachings we call the prosperity gospel. The comparison isn’t exact, of course. Prosperity teachers may be popular, but they aren’t part of the majority church as were the teachers Luther opposed. And if you remember from reading Luther’s list, he gives the Pope all due respect, suggesting that he is being misrepresented, not that he is teaching heresy himself. We can’t say that for the preachers of the prosperity gospel.

Here’s my list, taken from and based on Luther’s original–and four theses short. You see today’s Wittenberg doors on the InterWebs. They’re bronze, so we’ll have to post new theses with sticky tack. You’ll also see that several of the theses here are Luther’s own statements, taken from this translation.

No doubt, the spirit of Luther will pull me out of bed tonight, knock me in the head, and rebuke me until daybreak for pulling this stunt. I hope it doesn’t offend you and bore only some of you. Hope you continue to have a good and holy All Saint’s Day.

91 New Theses for the Modern Church

  1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to living your best life now, i.e. positive thinking, as taught by some preachers.
  3. Yet its meaning is not restricted to repentance in one’s heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.
  4. As long as hatred of sinful self abides (i.e. true inward repentance) the penalty of sin abides, viz., until we enter the kingdom of heaven.
  5. Preachers of “kingdom prosperity” have neither the will nor the power to remit the penalty of sin.
  6. They cannot remit guilt, but only ignore or excuse it because original sin and Christ’s atoning work are not in their view.
  7. God never remits guilt to anyone without, at the same time, making him humbly submissive to Christ.
  8. The promises of God apply only to followers of Christ Jesus, those who have been raised to life from a spiritual stillbirth.
  9. Mere fandom for a church or preacher does not qualify anyone to be particularly blessed by the Lord of Hosts.
  10. It is a wrongful act, due to ignorance, when mere fans of a church claim statements from the Word of God as particular promises for their personal lives.
  11. When preachers encourage their followers to claim particular promises, instead of repentance, surely it would seem that tares were sown among their congregations.
  12. These preachers ignore the natural consequences of sin in this world, i.e. suffering both mild and severe.
  13. Death is the result of sin, both physical and spiritual. All of our worldly sufferings are steps on this primrose path.
  14. The Shepherd has promised to walk with His flock through the valley of the shadow of death, not completely spare them from it.
  15. Our struggle with fearing the Lord is our natural tension between trusting Him and trusting ourselves.
  16. Faith is trusting the Lord for what we cannot see and test for ourselves.
  17. The Lord does not spare us from the fleshly pain of walking where we cannot see.
  18. Scripture gives us grounds to understand that believers will suffer pain in such a way as to rely on the Lord’s grace to be able to persevere.
  19. Therefore, Scripture does not teach that God intends for His followers to increase in prosperity and health throughout their earthly lives.
  20. Moreover, Scripture does not teach that God intends for this prosperity to increase while His followers can maintain their faith with absolute confidence.
  21. Faith is a gift of the Lord.
  22. Indeed, His eternal power guards the faith of His people through Christ until the end.
  23. If our faith must be absolutely confident, without the slightest taint of human doubt, in order to move the Lord’s hand, then Christ would not have blessed the man who begged Him to help his unbelief.
  24. Moreover, we love God only because He loved us first, before the manifestation of our faith.
  25. It must therefore be that many people are deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of worldly prosperity and health.
  26. Preachers have no divine authority to declare statements or phrases from the Word of God as particular promises for their congregations.
  27. It is certainly possible that when the money clinks in the hands of these ministers avarice and greed increase; but when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God.
  28. If these preachers had such authority, why do they not claim such promises on behalf of their congregations?
  29. Why do those who proclaim the kingdom prosperity of the Lord not use their own faith to bring down God’s blessing on everyone within their hearing?
  30. The teaching of God’s preferential treatment in this way denies the doctrine of humility.
  31. Indeed, many of Solomon’s proverbs commend to us righteous poverty over worldly wealth.
  32. Christ Himself taught that the rich would find difficulty entering the kingdom of heaven because of the entanglements of their wealth.
  33. We should be most carefully on our guard against those who say God intends His followers to increase in the wealth that entangles.
  34. For the favor conveyed by this prosperity is merely that which relates simply to favor of man.
  35. Scripture speaks equally of the prosperity of the righteous and the wicked.
  36. When the latter is in view, God instructs His people to remember the final judgment which comes from His righteous throne.
  37. No true wealth will be destroyed with the end of the age, so the false wealth of the wicked will burn up in time, but the true wealth of the righteous will endure forever.
  38. It is not in accordance with Christian doctrines to preach and teach that those who “enlarge their vision” of God’s favor can speak material prosperity into existence.
  39. Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys the favor of God and can be spiritual wealthy without the entanglements of riches.
  40. Any true Christian whatsoever, living or dead, participates in all the benefits of Christ and the Church; and this participation is granted to him by God on account of Christ’s atonement for him.
  41. If these preachers would extol their followers to speak and think positively, let them extol the virtues of hoping in Christ.
  42. If they would teach their followers that they will become what they believe, let them extol the humble character of Christ.
  43. If they would teach that the glory of God is on believers, let them find that glory in Christ on the cross.
  44. For if anyone would know their destiny in Christ, it is to take up their cross and follow Him.
  45. Christ Himself rejected the temptation to become king without suffering on the cross.
  46. A truly contrite and humble believer seeks and loves his Lord despite physical or worldly difficulties; whereas the very multitude of prosperity teaching dulls men’s consciences and tends to make them self-righteous.
  47. Christians should be taught that no exercise of faith for personal success or comfort is at all comparable with the works of mercy and love.
  48. Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he gives to these preachers who promise a greater financial return.
  49. Because, by works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man.
  50. Christians should be taught that he who sees a needy person, but passes him by although he gives money to these prosperity ministries, gains no spiritual benefit, but only incurs the wrath of God.
  51. Christians should be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they are bound to retain what is only necessary for the upkeep of their home, and should in no way squander it on the promises of greater return.
  52. Christians should be taught that the faith our Lord requires is exercised in humility and love.
  53. For Christ humbled Himself, disregarding the glory of God that was His, and in becoming man, obeyed the Father unto death on the cross.
  54. Christians should be taught that salvation is to be found in humble reliance on Christ and not on the strength of personal faith or financial success.
  55. It is vain to rely on words spoken in faith by believers more than on the grace of Almighty God.
  56. Christians should be taught that the Lord’s favor is first in great spiritual wealth, second in worldly wealth. The first is assured; the second is of the Lord’s discretion.
  57. Moreover, Christians should be taught that the Lord leads us through difficulties, e.g. poverty, etc., for our purity and to develop a reliance on Him.
  58. No claim made by even the most sincere believer will supplant the mind of God.
  59. If that were not so, then St. Paul would not have learned contentment in want, but only in plenty, and he would have delivered himself from prison with the power of his own faith.
  60. St. Paul would not have lost all things in order to gain Christ and be found in Him, because that would not have been God’s prosperous destiny for him, as taught by some.
Rembrandt St. Paul in Prison (1627, Stuttgart)
St. Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627
  1. Those are enemies of Christ and His church who ignore the Word of God in favor of proclaiming power in personal faith.
  2. Those are enemies of Christ who teach proclaiming faith more than in Christ’s redeeming work.
  3. When God said, “My grace is sufficient for thee,” He intended all believers to find their greatest fulfillment in His benevolence.
  4. No true teacher of the word of God would proclaim the power of human faith over the sufficiency of Christ.
  5. The merits of Christ are always working grace in the inner man, and working the cross, death, and hell in the outer man.
  6. When Christ said the kingdom of heaven is for those who would become like children, He intended for all believers to live the rich life of the humble servant.
  7. St. Laurence said that the poor were the treasures of the church, but he used the term in accordance with the custom of his own time.
  8. We do not speak rashly in saying that the treasures of the church are the keys of the church and are bestowed by the merits of Christ.
  9. Indeed, to teach the treasures of kingdom prosperity is to teach a modern indulgence of greed, lust, and covetousness.
  10. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
  11. It is right to regard this treasure as most odious, for it makes the first to be the last.
  12. On the other hand, the treasure of “kingdom prosperity” is most acceptable, for it makes the last to be the first.
  13. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets which, in former times, they used to fish for men of wealth.
  14. The treasures of the modern indulgences are the nets which today they use to fish for the wealth of men.
  15. The indulgences, which the merchants extol as the greatest of favors, are seen to be, in fact, a favorite means for money-getting.
  16. Nevertheless, they are not to be compared with the grace of God and the compassion shown in the Cross.
  17. Booksellers and publishers, who profess to uphold Christ in their publications, are under great obligation to watch closely and attend carefully these teachers of their own fancies instead of the gospel.
  18. Christian publishers rightly reject any proposals from the peddlers of these modern indulgences.
  19. These peddlers are not ministers of the gospel, but prey on the poor and ignorant with high-sounding words.
  20. They teach that giving will protect them from the devourer, but they are devourers of their own followers.
  21. They repeat the words of Job’s accusers as if they came from St. Peter. They say, “Agree with God,” but misstate what God affirms.
  22. We assert the contrary, and say that the riches of Christ in the inner man is a greater wealth than anyone could gain on earth.
  23. Again: When Scripture says, “Better is a little with righteousness,” it means that some of the righteous will live in poverty, at least for a season. This is no particular curse from God, but the original curse placed on the world by sin.
  24. We affirm that God does bless with material wealth, but this is secondary to the profound wealth given to us in Christ.
  25. Christians are heirs with Christ to an eternal inheritance which moth and rust cannot destroy, like the destruction coming for the riches of earth.
  26. The riches of God’s glory are to be found in Christ, who will strengthen the inner man with his Spirit through faith.
  27. Therefore, true kingdom prosperity is not of this world, just as our Lord said His kingdom was not of this world.
  28. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace.
  29. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.
  30. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.
  31. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

Feature photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Let Christ Pay Your Sin: Brideshead Revisited

“Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee,

Roused thee from thy fatal ease.”

These words from the old Key/Wilcox hymn adequately summarize the theme of Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps they even spoil the plot a bit, but this isn’t a plot-driven story. It’s relationship-driven—maybe faith-driven. Waugh draws out the fatal ease of his characters so that we can see what God’s grace does to them in the end.

Madresfield House

(Madresfield Court, the home of the Lygon family, Worcestershire.)

The narrator, Charles Ryder, is in the British army when the book opens. His unit relocates to the Bridehead estate, which provokes the sad memories of the rest of the novel. They don’t seem sad at first. When Charles begins his studies at Oxford, he meets Sebastian Flyte, a very friendly young man whose eccentricities seem only to endear him to almost everyone near him, especially Charles, who falls in love with him. Sebastian, a year ahead of Charles, has collected a handful of homosexually inclined friends, the worst of whom is Anthony Blanche.

While Blanche is brazenly queer (I can’t recall that he described himself with that term, but I’m confident he would have approved of it), the others are not, and Ryder suggests to his readers that we are sufficiently worldly enough to understand these relationships without delving into them. Much later in the book, he describes a monk as being naïve to not see the nature of companionship Sebastian held with a young German loaf, but all of this is subtle, perhaps because homosexuality was against the law. (Here’s a remarkable article on the autobiographical nature of Waugh’s novel, which mentions high society’s attitude on sexual matters.)

What isn’t subtle is the Catholicism of Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother. The entire Flyte/Brideshead family is at least nominally Catholic. Half the family hates it; the other half embraces it. Sebastian hates his mother apparently for her ardent faith. In fact, she seems to be a representation of the Catholic Church as a whole, certainly flawed but honest and devout. You might see each of the faithful Catholics of the Flyte family as different categories of the church: Lady Marchmain representing the institution, Brideshead, the elder brother, representing typical laity, and Cordelia, the younger sister, representing the missionary. Each of them is disliked to some degree. Cordelia gives us a reason on page 221 of my edition:

“[Lady Marchmain] was saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They can’t really hate God either. When they want to hate Him, and His saints they have to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that.”

So some of the characters distain God, regardless what they say of Him, and Waugh intends to show us how God responds. He shows us unmerited favor and lifelong mercy. Christ ignored the grief and insult of our sin, taking it to the cross for atonement once for all. Christ offers us grace, having paid for our hatred personally. Without Him, we live in sin. Waugh draws out a picture of this with one character (pg 287):

“Living with sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time…”

Without Christ, we have our sin, no matter how we dress it up. If we do not let Him pay for it, we will. If we do not end our lives as holy (“no one is ever holy without suffering”), we will end them in torment, having succumbed to life’s fatal ease.

Can Anyone Return from Heaven?

Very Steep Cliffs in Heaven's Gate MountainsPhil Johnson has an article on the recent rash of supposedly eyewitness accounts of heaven. He says it’s nothing new:

Various survivors of near-death experiences have been publishing gnostic insights about the afterlife for at least two decades. Betty Eadie’s Embraced by the Light was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List exactly 20 years ago. The success of that book unleashed an onslaught of similar tales, nearly all of them with strong New Age and occult overtones. So psychics and new-agers have been making hay with stories like these for at least two decades.

Johnson points to an upcoming book by John MacArthur on heaven and these books. He argues that the Bible forbids the possibility that anyone can return from beyond the grave. “All the accounts of heaven in Scripture are visions, not journeys taken by dead people,” MacArthur writes. “And even visions of heaven are very, very rare in Scripture. You can count them all on one hand.” Moreover, the biblical accounts focus on God’s overwhelming glory, not all the fun junk we might do in heaven.

In his excellent book Gospel Deeps: Reveling in the Excellencies of Jesus, Jared Wilson touches on this in a paragraph near the end.

Can I tell you one of the problems with books like Heaven Is for Real? Aside from the obvious honesty issues, they very often demote Jesus to a Character in heaven like one of the costumed players at Disney World. He is Santa Claus, an attraction of some kind. Continue reading Can Anyone Return from Heaven?

Blue Like Jazz Movie

Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality has been praised by a variety of folks for years, and Steve Taylor has adapted it for the big screen. It opens this weekend, though not in my area. It may gain a wider release next weekend. World Magazine as a good review here. Tiffany Owens writes:

While the movie successfully explores themes of forgiveness, authenticity, and the question of God’s existence as it follows one man’s journey to find God, it struggles to offer a clear explanation of the gospel.

I’m sure Blue Like Jazz is funny, and it’s probably uncomfortable. Hopefully, it’s also rewarding. Here’s the trailer.

Donald Miller talks about the themes of the movie and the criticism he’ll probably get on his blog. He says, “I get it. Criticism is hard. And not only this, churches get criticized for stuff that happened hundreds of years ago. I’d venture to say most criticism is unfounded and ill-informed. It can also be spiteful and hateful. So, I don’t want to be lumped in with the haters.”

Thomas McKenzie does One Minutes Reviews (which usually aren’t one minute, but hey!) and he talks lightly about the movie. This puts a positive spin on it for me.

Review of Cruciform by Jimmy Davis

Jesus calls us to take up our cross daily, and in doing so, our lives will take the shape of His cross. Jimmy Davis describes such a life in his book, Cruciform: Living the Cross-Shaped Life, possibly the best under-the-radar, Christian Living book this year. He writes, “We are shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross,” and thus are transformed to fulfill roles of seeker, shepherd, sower and steward.

I will summarize these points.

  • As children of God, we seek his kingdom and his righteousness first (Matthew 6:33). We desire to act like him, to love and think like him. We look to Jesus as our example for living well.
  • “In relationship to other disciples,” Davis writes, “the servant is a shepherd, one who encourages brothers and sisters in Christ, who loves and labors with them” for the kingdom (Colossians 3:12-16). There are caveats with this point, but generally speaking we love and work with each other keeping the abundant life of Christ in mind.
  • To those who aren’t disciples, we sow the gospel through actions and conversation. We have compassion for the crowds, like Jesus does (Matthew 9:37), praying for them and serving them for the sake of His kingdom.
  • For everything in God’s creation, we are stewards on His behalf of all the resources God has given us: “body, time, talents/gifts, money, head/heart/hands, words, work, creation” (Matthew 24:45-51).

We do this due to a focus on Christ’s life, which is essentially cross-shaped, and out of the source of our spiritual strength, which is a cross-shaped spirit. Each of these roles intermingles with the community in which they serve, a give-and-take that makes Jesus’ disciples interdependent. Davis carries these concepts through the end of the book as he describes that cross-shaped source of our spiritual lives.

Each chapter opens with a well-written, personal example of that chapter’s theme, showing how he has learned and continues to learn the principles he has written here. Perhaps the most difficult of these principles is the overcoming of sin by faith, not by effort (Galatians 3:1-5), which is the reason Davis builds his book on it. His constant refrain throughout the book sings of the grace by which we were saved being the same grace through which we obey and are made holy. Even in the worst situations (the last chapter begins with one), our Heavenly Father’s grace gives us the strength to persevere.

I look forward to living perpetually in that grace. Sometimes I think I’ve learned that lesson, and then I discover I haven’t. I want to make space in my daily routine to hear the gospel, to dwell on the Father’s love, as Davis describes it, because that cross-shaped song is where the abundant life is.

Sufjan Stevens and the Popularity of God’s Mystery

Musician Sufjan Stevens has draw much fanfare for a couple new album releases and his return to the concert circuit. I learned of this interview via Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog, and I was encouraged to see Stevens labeled as a Christian. Then I came to this:

Q. Do you believe that God can be reached through other faiths? John 14:6 categorically states Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” and nobody can get to the Father expect through him. A lot of people take that very literally and don’t believe you can find spirituality through Buddhism or Islam or whatever…

Stevens: Yeah, I mean who can know the mind of God and who can be his counselor? It’s not man’s decision, you know. If God is infinite and he’s in all of us and he created the world then I feel there is truth in every corner. There’s a kind of imprint of his life and his breath and his word and everything. You know, I’m no religious expert, and I don’t make any claims about the faith. All I can account for is myself and my own belief and that’s a pretty tall order just to take account of myself. I can’t make any claims about other religions. There’s no condemnation in Christ, that’s one of the fundamentals of Christianity.

Do you mind if I make a few observations? Continue reading Sufjan Stevens and the Popularity of God’s Mystery

Tweeting the Gospel

Tullian Tchividjian is on Twitter and has been writing sentences about the gospel for a while now. Here’s a list of those statements:

  1. The gospel doesn’t simply ignite the Christian life; it’s the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day.
  2. When you understand that your significance and identity is anchored in Christ, you don’t have to win—you’re free to lose.
  3. Christian growth doesn’t happen by working hard to get something you don’t have. It happens by working hard to live in light of what you do have

There are many more. Read on

Literally Devoted

The word for today from the Wordsmith is bibliolatry, used in this sentence: “Fifty percent of college graduates expect Jesus to be here any day now. We are, says Paul Boyer, almost unique in the Western World in combining high educational levels with high levels of bibliolatry.” Martin Gardner; Waiting for the Last Judgement; The Washington Post; Nov 8, 1992.

Bibliolatry is defined as “excessive devotion to the Bible, especially to its literal interpretation.” It’s also the worship of any book, but sticking to the first definition, I have to laugh when I see references to a literal interpretation of the Bible. I hesitate to use labels, but I’ll do it anyway. The idea in the example sentence is the essential thing conservatives think of when defining academic and some other types of liberals. They tell us if we would use our brains we would see the nuance, the deeper meaning, the shades of gray in the situation and not be so cock-sure of ourselves, but when pressed for a good answer, they don’t have one. They can only criticize the answers the conservatives have given.

Bibliolatry in this sense does not exist. There can be no excess in devotion to the Word of God. See Psalm 19 and Psalm 119, but don’t take them literally. Take them poetically. Your soul may not “cling to the dust,” because you can have life in His Word.

Has a ‘Caesar’ Overtaken Your Lord?

From Trevin Wax’s Holy Subversion (new from Crossway):

. . . Christians are turning the world upside down! They are acting against the Caesars of our day.

They are disobeying the Caesar of Success by praying for their competitors, making career choices that put family over finances, and seeking to be above reproach in their business practices.

They are dethroning the Caesar of Money by giving away their possessions and downsizing. . . .

Pastor Burns Bibles for Halloween

A misguided pastor from North Carolina plans to burn “satanic” books this Halloween, including recent translations of the Bible.

“I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people,” the pastor said.

Of the non-biblical books to be burned, they have works by Billy Graham, Rick Warren, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mother Teresa and many others. You can read a list here. (Maybe a Christian bookstore closed recently.)

I guess my impulse is to laugh off such foolishness, but I can’t do it this time. I’m grieved. This man and his congregation are deceived about the nature of God’s holy word in English and the mercy or gracious freedom he gives to his people. I’m even more bothered by his claim to have studied at a Christian college in my town. He says he left because they were too liberal, which is a little funny. Fundamentalists are known by the way they divide up believers and separate themselves from others. The plain meaning of the text is all they need to know God’s will, and by “plain meaning” they mean their interpretation alone. They have gone to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice they hear is Jesus’ voice, so how could they misinterpret anything?

I’m not too bothered, of course, because there isn’t anything I can do about it. Still, having heard stories of religious abuse, I can’t laugh when those who appear to be clanging cymbals like this hit the news. I’m not a satirist, I guess–which brings to mind this video of a panel discussion from a Ligonier Ministries conference. Doug Wilson gets into acting like Jesus acted, saying we throw some heavy interpretation into our answers when asking what Jesus would do. We almost never think that Jesus would give a satiric or biting answer, like calling some religious leaders a brood of vipers. Piper, Sproul, and Mohler all comment on that idea.