Pursuing a Better Country

What is your church equipping you to pursue?

Prosperity churches equip parishioners to pursue worldly wealth and comfort. Pastors are materially enriched; people are materially impoverished; all are spiritually bankrupt. Liberal churches equip congregants to pursue cultural respect. Pastors languish in unbelief; people go through altruistic motions; all are spiritually bankrupt. Evangelical churches equip members to pursue political and cultural influence. Pastors shill a political party; people feed on conservatism and American Civil Religion; all become spiritually bankrupt.

What is your church equipping you to pursue? What should your church be equipping you to pursue?

According to Hebrews 11:10, Abraham lived as a sojourner on earth for “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” In fact, verse 16 reveals his heart when it says that he desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Are you pursuing that city in that country? Moreover, is your church equipping you to pursue it?

Find a church in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, in which the Kingdom of God is not conflated with a political party, in which personal holiness within the walls of the church preoccupies the congregation more than does the act of morally policing society outside those walls, and in which God’s people are self-consciously sojourning together toward the city with foundations. Your church should be equipping you to pursue that.

Not societal transformation. Not moral reform. Not political control. Not material prosperity. Not a place at the cultural table. Not any of these. Pursue the city that has foundations, sojourning in community with others who love Christ, calling upon all people everywhere to leave the darkness and to join our merry band of pilgrims in the marvelous light of our God.

The journey is not easy, but in the end we will arrive at the “better country,” where the saints have gone before us, and where Christ awaits to welcome us home.

Coffee, with a Shot of Eternal Life

Published studies have recently confirmed that those who drink coffee—even lots of it—tend to live longer than those who do not. The problem is that I don’t want to live longer; I just want to drink lots of coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. I suffer no death wish, and not unlike most men, I hope to walk my daughters down the isle someday, and to enjoy vacations with my wife after our nest is empty. The Western world’s obsession with longevity is, however, something in which I cannot participate. Why? Because of sin.

The Bible teaches that the men and women who lived before the Flood lived a very long time, and I do not envy them, for the Bible also says that God looked down on the earth in those days and saw that “every inclination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil all the time.” The world in which they lived was corrupt, and that corruption also lived within their hearts. It lives within mine too. But whereas I might suffer life lived in a world of sin and of struggle against my own heart for 80 or 90 years, they suffered it ten times as long. And that’s the rub: I love coffee, but I hate living in a world that is fallen. I long for better.

I do eventually want to live forever. I just don’t want to live forever while sin still brings war and disease and rape and ruin and suffering and death. When Jesus returns to judge, He will restore all things, purging both me and this world of sin. Then, and only then, will living forever be worth it.

Until then, I will continue to consume egregious amounts of coffee, not because I hope to live longer, but because coffee is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. More than that, Jesus is proof that God desires our eternal happiness, and He has already paid the price to secure it.

Smoke Machines and Self-Worship

Emotion is a legitimate part of worship. To define worship as emotion is, however, idolatry. Worship has far more to do with glorifying God than with how I feel when I glorify Him. The very word—worship—means to ascribe worth. When Christians gather to worship, we gather to ascribe worth to our Triune God. Fundamentally, worship is about Him, not me; it is for Him, not for my emotional satisfaction.

Broad segments of contemporary evangelical Christianity informally define worship as that which makes me feel worshipful. Not that they would ever say so, but the cultivation of an emotional buzz has become the raison d’etre of the worship service. If singing song after song after song in a darkened room, while a band rocks out under stage lights to a belching smoke machine makes me feel worshipful, then I will define such rocking out as worship. But is it? While feeling an emotional buzz during singing may be a byproduct of genuine worship, genuine worship does not aim at producing a buzz; it aims at glorifying the Lord. It is less concerned with my buzz than with doing that which God desires. And how can I know what God desires in worship? The Bible tells me so.

The heritage and history of Protestant Christianity is one that exalts the Word of God as the sole authority for the doctrines and practices of the Church. Not church councils. Not popes. Not popular movements. The Bible. But this generation of American Protestants has a different authority. Rome exalts tradition over Scripture; atheists exalt science over Scripture; and contemporary Protestants exalt their feelings over Scripture. Confession of sin is a bummer, so we don’t do that in worship, even though such confession is commanded in Scripture and ascribes worth to Jesus Christ, who is the only Savior from such sin. Singing, however—that really makes me feel good, so let’s do more of that. Only we can’t sing anything that is old or hard to sing or intellectually challenging or that doesn’t give me an emotional buzz, because when you really get down to it, I am worshipping the buzz. And the buzz gets what the buzz wants.

When the buzz becomes the idol that a given congregation worships, then that congregation is in its death throes. It may have strong attendance; it may boast stable finances; it may even enjoy committed leadership, but it is dying nonetheless. Idolatry, in the name and guise of true worship, is still idolatry. And God never blesses idolatry. Unless repented, idolatry kills. Every time.

Maybe you attend such a church, love it, and think that I’m a big doo-doo head. But do you just feel that I’m a doo-doo head, or can you show me from the Bible why you worship the way you do, and how Jesus is glorified through a smoke machine? And that’s the point: Either the Word of God is the authority for all that we believe and do, or it is not. If it is, then we have a duty to examine it, and to craft services of worship that focus on glorifying God, even if such services might not buzz me emotionally the way I like.

When it comes down to it, worship, and every element in it—including singing—is supposed to be for God and for His pleasure. I might very well be emotionally enriched while I strive to please Him, but if I strive to be emotionally enriched—to get buzzed on worship—then I’m really just worshipping an idol. In fact, I’m worshipping me.

Jesus came to rescue me from self-worship, not for it.

All or Nothing and the Death of Discernment

America is becoming infected with an all-or-nothing mentality, the result of which is the death of discernment.

We are red or blue, black or white, college educated or not college educated, pro-life or pro-choice. The list goes on, and the casualties mount. As we polarize, the center weakens; we see only extremes. We are extremes.

Abraham was a man of faith, commended as such by the authors of the New Testament. And Abraham was also a liar and a slave owner. Gideon was a man of faith, commended as such in the Book of Hebrews. And Gideon, after nominally refusing to become the king of Israel, named his son Abimelech, which means “my father is king.” David was a man of faith—a man after God’s own heart—and was commended as such in the pages of the New Testament. And David was also an adulterer and murderer. These men were worthy of admiration as examples of faith, and, at the same time, were immoral, rebellious, often blind to their sin, and wicked in very public ways. The authors of the New Testament were able to view them with discernment, praising that which was indeed noble and faithful within them, while not ignoring their very real faults. These men were both faithful and sinful.

Why have we as a society lost the ability to say that? Recently, the City of New Orleans has systematically removed public statues that commemorate various Civil War figures. The statues are being removed because the men in question fought for the Confederacy. This post is not, however, about the statues. Rather, it is about the way in which the argument over those statues reveals our eroding faculties of discernment.

Those defending the presence of the statues paint verbal halos around the heads of Lee and Jackson and others, minimizing their sins, which only infuriates those who would see the statues fall. Conversely, those who advocate for the removal of the statues vilify Lee and Jackson and others, minimizing their virtues, which only infuriates those who would see the statues remain.

It is not simply statues that testify. Trump supporters can hear no criticism of their champion; Trump haters can hear no praise. It was the same with President Obama. All Muslims are bad—terrorists waiting to happen. Or all Muslims are good, peace-loving people. I am either an LGBT advocate or a homophobic hater. If you come to speak at my university, but do not promote my agenda, I’ll riot until your visit is cancelled, for I cannot even hear you—you are bad, and only bad. Shall I refuse to acknowledge the brilliance and dignity of Martin Luther King, Jr. because he was also a serial adulterer? Great men have great faults; can we not simply acknowledge both truths?

This is nonsense, all of it. It defies common sense. Human life, and all its endeavors, is a mixture of truth and error, of honor and dishonor, of genuine piety and genuine sin, of right and wrong, and of various shades and admixtures. Only sheer folly refuses to acknowledge the tremendous faith of Abraham—which was credited to him as righteousness—because of his sin. It is a willful blindness, a chosen ignorance, and a public shame to do so. It is the death of discernment. And it is no different with Stonewall Jackson or Donald Trump or Barack Obama or MLK any other human being who has ever lived.

Except Jesus.

And that means that when Christians, who know that Jesus is the only perfect man, engage in this kind of polarizing rhetoric along with our senseless society, we leave ourselves without salt to preserve the rot, and without light to shine in the darkness. If the Church is just a reflection of the world and a shill for a socially or politically conservative viewpoint—whatever that is—then our prophetic voice is dead, and we should just be silent and mourn.

Basic discernment might be dying in the world, but it must not die in the Church. Our testimony to Jesus requires it.

Evangelical is a Dirty Word

My convictions have not changed. Nevertheless, the word that is often used to describe my convictions has changed. Evangelical. It is a term that once referred to a Christian of a particular theological stripe. An evangelical was one who believed the Bible, but who shunned the cultural antagonism of the fundamentalist movement. An evangelical was, however, not a theological liberal; an evangelical affirmed the virgin birth, the reality of miracles, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And while evangelicals sought to engage society with the Good News about Jesus, urging Christians to serve Him in every legitimate sphere of activity—including politics and government—their primary focus was the Great Commission. The evangelical Church existed to evangelize the world and to make disciples of all nations.

Things have changed. Carl Trueman, who teaches history at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, has argued that the greatest problem with the evangelical movement is that it no longer has an evangel. It has lost its center, become hopelessly entwined in and conflated with conservative politics, and is now seemingly more concerned with controlling the culture than with glorifying the Christ it once proclaimed. In short, the term “evangelical” has become a descriptor of a socio-political-religious conglomeration that often fails to represent biblical Christianity.

The media know this, although those who identify as evangelical are slow to acknowledge it. Recently, the press has had a field day with Jerry Falwell, Jr., who suggested that Donald Trump is the “dream president” for evangelical Christians. And Falwell represents whom? Those who vote Republican? Those who are socially conservative? Those who oppose immigration? Those who favor a strong military? Those who seek a smaller federal government? What other social or civil or political commitments, which have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, might we add to the mix? Who is Falwell representing when he speaks? What is he representing?

A word that once almost exclusively described a theological posture has now come to describe a bastard blend of theology, politics, public policy, American civil religion, and inexplicable internal contradictions.

I am opting out. I am not evangelical, whatever that word may now mean. I am a confessional Christian. My beliefs are summarized and explained in the Westminster Standards. Those beliefs have not changed, but a word that once described a theological posture with which I could identify no longer does so.

If Jerry Falwell Jr. represents what it means to be evangelical, then I am not.

Politics and the Misuse of Jesus

Recently my Facebook feed has featured a variety of posts that express the same sentiment: Jesus healed people with preexisting conditions. The suggestion being that the current Republican-led attempt to repeal Obamacare’s requirement that insurers cover preexisting conditions is unJesuslike. Yes, I realize that that is not a word.

Jesus was not an insurer, nor did He represent a political party. He never lobbied the Roman Empire, insisting that it provide healthcare for all its citizens, or for those non-citizens who lived within its bounds. In fact, He seemed more or less disinterested in politics and healthcare legislation altogether. When people appeal to Jesus’ example as the model for national legislative decisions about healthcare, they miss an important point. Jesus’ healings were miracles. Straight up, inexplicable, unrepeatable miracles. He did not provide healthcare; He displayed His power as the Son of God over the natural world. He did this so that when He claimed to be the Son of God, His miraculous works would validate His incredible claims. Jesus’ works proved His words. Jesus healed physical maladies to prove that He is also able to heal our great spiritual maladies: sin and death and Hell. Nothing in the Scripture suggests that we are to look to Jesus for guiding legislative principles in a national healthcare debate; everything in the Scripture suggests that we are to look to Him for salvation.

Every one of Jesus’ patients suffered from a preexisting condition called sin. Some of them were indeed physically ill. All were spiritually afflicted. He took no co-pay for His services. Jesus was thus singularly compassionate, not merely giving sight to the blind and health to the sick, but also offering Himself unto death so that we might live eternally.

Forcing Jesus’ miracles to serve as the template for a particular legislative agenda in a healthcare debate is simply a misuse of Jesus, and it sadly draws attention away from His true agenda, which was to provide healing that lasts forever.

Successful Churches, Numerical Growth, and Fidelity

This is going to be hard for American Christians.

Since the founding of this nation, churches have evaluated the “success” of a ministry based upon one overriding factor: numerical growth. We pursue growth, sacrifice for growth, and measure God’s blessing by growth. Numbers litter the evangelical landscape.

When a church or ministry does not grow, we assume that something is wrong. I do too. And then I remember that the Word of God offers a different standard by which Christians must evaluate their labors: fidelity. No church can produce growth. “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7) It is mine to be faithful; it is Christ’s to grow His Church. This is, in fact, what Jesus taught when He said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church.” The power to transform a human heart, to convert a sinner to a saint, and to unite a person to the visible church rests in the hands of God alone. I can and must pursue fidelity; I must plant and water and fertilize, but I have no power to guarantee growth.

That’s why this will be hard for the American church. The rapid decline of nominal Christianity, the rise of secularism, and shifting cultural winds indicate that Christian faith may be on the wane in our nation. It will be hard for the American church to accept that. It will be hard to redefine success, rejecting a “growth = success” model in favor of a “fidelity = success” model. It will challenge the Church to remember that at various times and places in history God’s Church on earth has been but a remnant, small and struggling, while in other times and places it has been broad and deep and growing rapidly. We must remember that it is not ours to determine in which age we live; neither is it ours to demand of God that He numerically grow His Church in this place and at this time. It may instead be His will to allow the Church in America to struggle and to diminish in numbers, even while it grows in depth, fidelity, and devotion to Jesus Christ.

Certainly God is free to send another Reformation or a 3rd Great Awakening to refresh the Church and to renew its vitality. But the Church in America must acknowledge that He is also free to let the Church shrink in numbers in order to cause her to grow in holiness. Will we be content with that, or will we continue to demand “success” according to our own definitions?

This is going to be hard.

I Know Spiritual Stuff

“You can’t prove that!” As a Christian I have heard those words more than once. My American culture is ill at ease with public expressions of Christian faith, but will content itself if only I will say that I believe that Jesus is Lord, or if I state my faith as an opinion, as one perspective among many equally legitimate perspectives. But as soon as I say, “I know that Jesus is Lord and Christ,” or “I know that the Bible is God’s Word,” or I know anything in reference to the moral, spiritual, or metaphysical world, my culture reacts. “You can’t prove that! You may believe it, but you don’t know it!”

Are they right? Am I conflating belief with knowledge? That depends on your epistemology. I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, he’s going to start talking about an ology. This can’t be good . . .” Hang in there. The Cambridge Dictionary defines epistemology as “the part of philosophy that is about the study of how we know things.” How we know things. Can I really say that I know that Jesus rose from the dead? That depends on how we know things.

The epistemology of the culture that surrounds the American Church is materialistic. At its core it argues that the only things I can know are things that I can validate with my five senses. I can know that gravity is real because I can drop a ball in an experiment. I can know that the boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit because I can measure it. I can know material, demonstrable, verifiable, physical stuff. It is the epistemology of the scientific method. But I can’t know immaterial, spiritual, moral, or metaphysical things because those things are not physical stuff that I can analyze, that I can manipulate, and that I can prove. The materialist epistemology therefore defines knowledge in man-centered terms, making man, by his experimentation and intellect, the final arbiter of truth.

The problem is that every epistemology is a faith-based commitment. Defining truth in man-centered and materialistic terms is a choice. It’s a choice to preclude all that I cannot verify, classifying such truth claims as opinion and delimiting “knowledge” to material things. In other words, it may be true that we can know nothing with certainty about the immaterial, spiritual, and moral worlds, but no one can prove that. You have to assume it in your definition of truth. You have to take it as an article of faith that the only thing a person can really know is that which he can materially prove.

Here’s the rub: You can make an equally valid but different faith-based assumption. I can, for example, assume that there is a God who knows all things. This God has revealed certain things to man about the immaterial, spiritual, and moral worlds that I cannot prove with my five senses. But I don’t need to prove them, for One who knows all things has said so. Thus, I know that such revealed truths are true. My very definition of knowledge has thus expanded. I can still know true things by the scientific method; I can still validate physical truth claims with my five senses. But I can also know—not just believe—things about the spiritual world that I cannot physically validate.

One man assumes that physical knowledge comprises all that is rightly called knowledge. Another assumes that revealed knowledge is properly knowledge because Him who revealed it knows all things. You cannot prove that there is no spiritual truth; I cannot prove there is. Each man must take his epistemology as an article of faith; neither can be proven nor disproven. Each man has made a faith-based decision. There is no faith verses fact or knowledge verses belief conundrum; there is one faith-commitment versus another faith-commitment. One man has faith that God is and that He has spoken; the other has faith that He has not. The competition does not pit faith against knowledge, but faith against faith.

Christian, when people try to shut down your expressions of Christianity, claiming that you can’t know or prove anything about the spiritual or immaterial world, and that everything you’re saying is only opinion, what they really mean is, “I have artificially chosen to define knowledge in such a way that delimits it to that which I can physically prove, and which makes me the arbiter of truth, thereby writing God out of the equation, and your insistence that you know something spiritual is upsetting my apple cart.”

Please, tip that apple cart, and fear not to do so. Your epistemological assumption is just as valid as theirs. And while their epistemology excludes spiritual, immaterial, and moral truths, yours includes these, while also freely acknowledging that we can gain truth from our five senses as well. If others want to cut the former out of the equation, then they’re impoverishing themselves. But as for you, Christian, just keep believing that Him who knows all things has spoken, and you can know it is true.

The Age of the Idiot Expert

American egalitarianism is creating a society of self-appointed idiot experts.

Assuming that any difference in role or status is inherently unfair, egalitarianism attempts to level social distinctions, one of the byproducts of which is that the average American no longer recognizes actual expertise. Each of us therefore presumes to speak with accuracy and authority about any and all subjects. It matters not if I possess no actual expertise in the areas of science, philosophy, government, or environment to which I speak. My opinion is just as valid Bob’s opinion, even if Bob is an infectious disease specialist and I am a plumber. After all, there is no truth, only opinion. No education qualifies Joe to speak to a particular subject more than Jim, or so assumes Jim. No experience makes Jane a better judge of this particular question than Jill, or so assumes Jill. Our egalitarian culture has created an atmosphere in which the voices of actual experts—people who are, in fact, more knowledgeable and experienced than the rest of us in a given field of study—are drowned in the chaos and clamor of the idiot expert.

Social media has enabled and encouraged the idiot expert to flaunt his intellectual snake oil, and has reinforced the egalitarian assumption that I am just as well informed as everyone else, and just as able rightly to judge any question as is the next guy. Why? Because I read an article about it online. Even true experts have fallen prey to the seduction of such egalitarian nonsense. A scientist, who is trained, say, in geology, lectures pedantically on matters of theology or government or business. Expertise in one field, however, does not confer authority in all fields.

Equity is a beautiful thing. Equity offers each person equal value, equal dignity, and equal opportunity. Egalitarianism, however, demands equal outcomes, and in so doing devalues hard work, achievement, knowledge, and earned competence. It destroys expertise, and fosters the development of a nation of idiot experts.

Spend five minutes on Facebook today and you will read post after post after post from constructions workers, housewives, businessmen, pastors, chefs, and people from all walks of life with no actual expertise in infectious disease, and yet they will declaim authoritatively on all matters related to COVID-19. After all, they read an article on Facebook, which obviously makes them an expert.

Christian, the next time you prepare to post something, presuming to speak authoritatively on matters of church and state or health and medicine or business and economics, ask yourself, “What do I really know about such things? Am I an actual expert?” The culture will produce enough idiot experts. In fact, their number is growing daily. Let the Church and her people model humility and grace and a willingness to learn before we speak.

Christ needs disciples, not idiot experts.

Fake News, Real News, and a Man Called Sally

All news is fake news.

Our society long ago abjured the notion of absolute truth. It teaches instead that morality is subjective; even basic human identity is up for grabs. It matters not if I possess male genitalia. If I wear a dress and insist that people call me Sally, who are you to argue? Identity is not a product of biology; it is a personal preference. So is sexuality. What is “true” for you may not be what is “true” for me, which subjectivizes the whole notion of truth itself. News is not fact. It is perspective. Your view of an event may differ from mine. Who’s to say what really happened?

I could go on, but you get the drift. The difference between a news source that is a shill for the extreme right or left and a supposedly legitimate news source is not a difference between fake news and real news. It is not a difference in kind, but only in degree. Both sources promote an agenda; they provide an interpretation, which is based on pre-existing cultural, political, and moral commitments. Each source presents a viewpoint that reflects its ideology. Whereas an alt-left source might freely admit its political bias—and even glory in it—a more moderately liberal source, such as CNN, insists that it is neutral, free from any ideology, and a trustworthy source of “real” news, all the while referring to a man in a dress as “she.” You cannot have it both ways. Either you admit your ideological bias and refer to the man in the dress as Sally, or you deny any bias and call the man “he.” The rise of “fake” news as a cultural phenomenon is simply the logical extension of the loss of absolute truth.

When nothing is true, nothing is false either.