Measuring Surprise and Delight

One of the great surprises for gardeners is the volunteer, those that blossom in unexpected places. Sometimes delightful, like the beautiful poppies that arise in my tomato beds, and sometimes not; the virtual maple forest that germinated in my backyard one spring required a lot of undesirable labor. The hundreds of little saplings were not all that surprising given the countless seeds that had dropped in the grass beneath the tree the fall before, but the flowers that sprout in the vegetable frames far distant from the flower beds are a welcome wonder. As every gardener knows, the appearance of these plants is not attributed to my work or intention; birds or wind or the coats of the dogs had serendipitously been the sowing agent that brought these joys to my soul.

There’s a similar joy found in the ministry of believers blossoming in unexpected places. What makes these unexpected joys stand out is that they are not where we expected them, and they’re  measures of spiritual movement that a stagnant church easily misses. Many churches measure their health and ‘success’ using a yardstick marked out in segments labeled attendance, budget and programs. When the pews and offering plate are full, and the program schedule grows more and more crowded, we celebrate ministry. When the opposite is true and fewer seats are occupied and the budget constrained, these measures of success move the pointer into the red. A sense of failure rises, soon followed by discouragement. This can lead to an unfortunate blindness to the power of God at work, especially where we least expect it.

Wild abandon is the natural state of the forest and the volunteer doesn’t stand out among its equally random neighbors. The volunteer in our garden is surprising because of its location. The seed that falls to the ground and germinates, even if carried a distance on the wing, is doing what it is designed to do, creating after its own kind [Gen 1:12]. If we as Christ followers are faithful in discipling others, we too will reproduce after our own kind and the fruit they bear (Rom 7:6) will be the natural result. This is the genius of God in making soul shaping a normal part of life and not a program. We teach by living out our beliefs (Dt 6:6-8; Mt 28:19) and shaping hearts as we walk along and when we lie down and when we rise.

We’ve become accustomed to looking for ministry results as an outcome of a program. If we have the right music and preaching style, worshippers will come. We pour into the children and teenagers so that they make it successfully to adulthood. Our discipleship, more often than not, has a start and end date where success is measured by a completed workbook. We need to look deeper though; we need to spy out the volunteers that have been carried by the wind to unexpected places. By the design of the Lord, this is where the measure of a spirit-guided heart is going to be found.

What of the ministry that a transformed heart started that now serves the community? What about the bible study conducted by folks who take their discipled souls south for the winter? Your ministry plan didn’t have a bullet point for either one of those activities. What of the fellowship that surrounds an elderly member who is by themself and refuses to let them be alone? This is the work of the heart surrendered to the Lord. Success is not measured by programs, the Lord measures it by heart and if your discipleship is transforming hearts, you never know where the spirit is going to take them next. Your church is never commanded to be the biggest or have the most programs. It is called to be faithful in shaping the hearts of Jesus’ people and then trusting Him to put them to work in the places we least expect.

The Evangelist : In The Beginning

One: John 1:1-18

The fourth gospel writer, John, is moved by the Spirit to open his expansive book of Belief by tying it to a foundational theological tenet, In the beginning. Of all of the ways in which the majesty of God is revealed in the Bible, encountering Him as the Grand Initiator is one of the most important ways in which the relationship of human and divine is made comprehensible. God begins and our lives are the product of that initiative.

The first words of the Bible reveal an ever-existent God who creates all that exists, putting it in motion and unfolding His plan for its history. As the reader sees the logical progression of the perfect world unfolding in the order necessary for each successive step to prosper, we see the care and order in which the Initiator proceeds to fashion an existence without need for a Savior. As He arrives at the moment of creation for His greatest joy, man and woman, we are given a hint that God is not alone in this work, saying “Let us make man in our image..” To whom does He speak? Who is witness with Him to the creation and soon-to-come Fall?

John provides the answer most clearly; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Bearing witness to the creation and Fall that necessitates a Savior is the One who would be that Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only does God initiate the creation of all out of his love, desire and incomparable imagination, He also initiates its redemption and restoration to come. Apprehending this idea lies at the heart of our understanding of God and the Scriptures. God is first to act. Before humankind has even the briefest of notions about what it might need, He has acted to provide.

This is simultaneously humbling and comforting. It both mortifies our pride and wraps us in inexhaustible serenity as we apprehend the fact that just as we played no role in our creation, we also play no role in our salvation. It is wholly of the Great Creator, both in concept and in execution. We do nothing but celebrate the benefits and worship the provider who initiates before we know we have need.

image|magic madzik

Tie the Knot Tighter

Bound Together by Chris Brauns

“Our culture idolizes the free-floating, unhindered, and isolated hero cut off from any formal responsibilities. But the Lone Ranger is a lie. Isolated heroes like Jack Reacher do not exist.” Though we may make noises that insist that the culture at large does not affect the Church, this too is a falsehood. This meme of individuality and a disconnection from one another has permeated the pews, and because it has, Christians suffer a great loss. Recovering the idea that we are inextricably bound together for good and bad is the purpose of Pastor Brauns’ excellent book, Bound Together.

Rooting the foundation in the oft-misunderstood recesses of the doctrine of Original Sin, Brauns establishes the nature of our binding, what he names the Principle of the Rope. Though we were not individually responsible for Adam’s failure, we were corporately tainted by his actions, resulting in the same nature and guilt. The positive antidote to the Fall is found in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice benefiting the World, not just you or me.

The book is theologically challenging without descending into seminary speak. The reader will linger in some chapters, especially early on, as the foreign idea of being tied to one another comes set. Building on this baseline, Pastor Brauns’ then applies this corporate notion to our individual lives in a series of chapters that help the reader understand the implications the binding brings to day to day life. Whether it is read all the way through or approached one topic at a time, Bound Together is book [and concept] badly needed in Christ’s people today.

I’m grateful to Zondervan who provided this copy for review.

Facing Calvary Seven : Hilaskomai

Lenten Reflections Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi 2012

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (NIV) Rom 3:25-26

imageChrist Jesus ,whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (ESV) Rom 3:25

The question of what was accomplished on the Cross that Friday afternoon has both simple and complex answers. The simple response is, it changed everything. A more in-depth examination discovers the true magnitude of that change.

The truth of Romans 3:23 [All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God] points us to His attitude toward humankind. His holiness demands retribution, His love leads to sacrifice. The perfection of His character does not allow one or the other. Propitiation—the turning of God’s righteous wrath away from sinners—is the answer to the first, the self-sacrifice of Himself in Christ the second. No substance or creature from within the fallen world held the perfection necessary to fulfill the demand of perfect holiness. For this reason, Jesus enters the world thirty-three years previous.

Modern Christians don’t often meditate on the turning aside of God’s wrath. We have pushed into the realms of the angry-God of the Old Testament, forgetting that it demanded the life of Christ for satisfaction. The life of our buddy. The life of the Jesus of modern prom songs. The life of Jesus who has become a casual expletive.

The life of Jesus our Savior.


Grace and peace to you in the Name of the One who is over all and through all and in all.

image Fred Jackson

Learning to Kneel–Four Means War


A.W. Tozer wrote this about worship and the fact that we were created for that purpose: “If we do not honor this purpose our lives will degenerate into shallow, selfish, humanistic pursuits.” Oh, the prescience of brother Tozer.

One of the components of paradise was perfect worship. Before humankind elected to rebel against their Creator, they enjoyed perfect communion with God. They understood Him and were able to communicate directly with Him. They were in the perfect environment  and were able to live out the purpose for which they were created, worshipping God. None of the concerns that plague us today were present. Worship was uninhibited, unlimited, untimed, uninterrupted and the participants were unafraid and unblemished.

And then the wars came.

The theological history of worship begins long before Creation, in the heavens. More than our mundane battles over music style, instrumentation or volume, the wars began to be waged over the object of worship. The first worship battle was sparked by Lucifer, the Star of the Morning, being cast out of the presence of God. The Cherubim to which all others aspired desired for worship to be directed to Him rather than its proper object. God, whose name is Jealous, would not abide with this shared arrangement and the wars began.

Coming in the form of a serpent, a creature over which Man had dominion, Satan slithered into the second battle to interrupt the perfect communion of the Garden. A subtle twisting of the words of God bewitched and betrayed the inhabitants of the garden. Putting themselves above the place of God, they’re minds were opened to the worship of self. Redemptive history begins.

The first casualty of the second offensive was Abel. Differences in worship style start here even though God gives every opportunity for propriety in worship to be restored. Rather than do so, Cain becomes the first to divide fellowship with other men over the way in he decides to worship. Rather than seeking God’s desire for worship, the long, sad history of church division get’s its introduction here.

Grace and peace to you…

Building on Bedrock

Dug Down Deep by Joshua Harris


Contrary to the oft-heard sentiment among Christians that they “just want to love Jesus” and dispense with the wrestling with the challenges of theology, Pastor Joshua Harris says that “we can’t know him and relate to him in the right way without doctrine.” We know the redeemer, but through the study of doctrine we come to fully understand the contours of how God is working in His world. The study of doctrine enables us to understand “what he’s done and why he’s done it”.

Dug Down Deep is an unexpected joy. Having read and studied many of the lengthy, challenging theological treatises that he references throughout the book, Harris has produced a systematic theology that doesn’t read like the typical volume of this type. Dug Down Deep approaches the key doctrines of Christianity in the pastoral voice of your friend Josh. He swaddles the theological truth with personal accounts, showing over and over how different points of doctrine have a direct application to day to day life.

While Harris has gone to great lengths to make the book approachable for Christians who locate themselves nearly anywhere along the continuum of spiritual maturity, it has a depth that will make it a useful book to return to again and again throughout life. The reader can take away as much as their maturity enables them to understand within each chapter without getting overwhelmed. Repeated reads through the chapters will give new insights and scriptures to meditate upon enough for many years of fruitful study. This book belongs an many shelves where no doctrinal guides exist now.

Pastor Harris’ conversational approach would make this book especially useful for youth and young Christian study groups. He has a pastoral heart for people to know their Lord better and each topic is designed to invite you in and to understand Him on a deeper level. More mature Christians will find the quotes by Packer, Sproul, Stott and others and will gain the confidence to approach some their more challenging theologies.

I’m grateful to Multnomah Books who provided this book for review.

Paedobaptism-The Baptism of Infants


The doctrine of infant baptism (paedobaptism) has a long and controversial history that extends back in recorded Church history to the early Church fathers, many of whom point to the Scriptures for further historic records. The practice is viewed as a clear extension and privilege accorded by covenant theology (cf. Col 2:11-12). As circumcision marked members of God’s people—including infants—during the Covenant of Works period, so too does baptism serve as the mark of the new members of God’s family under the new Covenant of Grace.

Serving both as an argument for and against the practice, there is agreement that no where do the scriptures specifically ordain the baptizing of infants. This argument from silence offers support (there is no injunction against the practice) and  denial (there is no command to baptize infants). It is this silence that makes the practice controversial in the eyes of many in the modern Church. It also makes doctrinal support difficult to explain, since an understanding requires multiple layers of theology woven together for its foundation.

Paedobaptists divide the history of God’s people into two covenantal periods. The first period began with the interaction of God and His creations in the Garden. Upon their failure to obey, humankind was unable to maintain eternal life on their own. A ‘works’ covenant was established between God and man; so long as man obeyed the rules, redemption would be provided by the sovereign God. All those covered by the agreement were to be physically marked by circumcision, separating them from other peoples of the world. As the Bible records, humankind generally failed to maintain their end of this agreement. The coming of the Savior heralded a new covenant of grace, one in which those who placed their belief and faith in Christ would be redeemed. He gave as a symbol of this covenant the practice of baptism.

The paedobaptist roots their argument in a consistency requirement between the two covenants. In the first period, all of the males of Israel were circumcised, including the infants and children. They were considered full members of the people of God. At the transition to the covenant of Grace, paedobaptists insist that membership in God’s people must still include the youngest in the family since no scripture records instructions to the contrary. Thus, infants are baptized as a sign of their participation in the covenant.

The scriptural thread that connects the doctrine is long, spanning the Bible from the beginning of the story to the epistles circulated among the early Church. God’s covenant with Abraham is marked by circumcision (Gen 17:9-14). This marking is to remain in place until the new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-34) is initiated by the coming of Jesus (Gal 3:14-4:7). Though inexplicit with regard to the physical marking, the Lord ordains a new rite of membership in the family, baptism (Mt 28:19-20). The book of Acts records the arguments of the Jerusalem council (cf. Ch 15) regarding the need to discard circumcision as the mark of belonging. Paul states in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 7:14)  that the children of believing parents are holy (set apart), connecting the meaning of the two rites (Col 2:11-12).

It is important to note at this point a distinction between the Catholic sacrament of baptism extended to infants and the doctrine applied in Protestant churches. The Catholic sacrament is seen to confer grace ex opere operato, that is ‘by the work performed’. In other words, salvation is conferred by the proper application of the sacraments. The Protestant understanding of an infant baptized is significantly different. Any grace conferred to the infant is via the conduit of the parent’s faith, their belief covering the entire family unit.

John Murray argues in his classic book on the subject, Christian Baptism, that “if infants are excluded now, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that this changes implies a complete reversal of the earlier divinely instituted practice…in other words, the command to administer the sign to infants has not been revoked: therefore it is still in force”. [pp 49-50] Bryan Chapell concurs, saying “The absence of a scriptural command to prohibit administering the sign of the covenant to children after two thousand years of observing such a practice weighs significantly against the view that the apostles wanted only those who were able to profess their faith to be baptized.” [Why do We Baptize Infants, pg 16]

Grace and peace.

image alex @ faraway

The Ordinance of Baptism


Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

With this commission our Lord instituted the rite of baptism as practiced by the Church since. In the centuries that have passed, the Church has interpreted the rite’s meaning, effect and administration in myriad ways. It has provided moments of unmatched joy for participants and their beloved, and it has also evoked bitter division within the Body.

Christian discuss and divide over the mode and meaning of baptism, over who the appropriate subjects of the rite are and even what the effect of the baptism is. Catholic theology insists that the rite of baptism causes regeneration, making it a necessity for salvation. The Reformation division is rooted in these sacramental ideas and insistence that salvation is by faith alone. Therefore, the predominant belief in the Protestant church is that the rite is symbolic in nature and that it is practiced out of obedience to the command of the Lord.

Understanding the practice of baptism requires careful research and exegesis. Other than the command to practice the ordinance, there are no explicit instructions for administration, purpose or effect in the New Testament. The doctrine of a church is therefore devised from existing belief, historical practice and what can be understood in the text. Understanding this, baptism should be looked at as a non-critical doctrine and one that should not be a cause of division, though it remains so.

A series of posts will follow this in the coming weeks. The first will explore the predominant Protestant position of a believer’s only baptism, administered by immersion. A word study of Baptizo is a necessary component for understanding the practice of immersion versus affussion, and that will follow these initial posts. We will then explore infant baptism and the theology behind that doctrine. The objective of these posts is not to advocate for a single position but to explore and discuss the theology behind a doctrine that we often take for granted. I’ll look forward to interacting with readers on this topic.

Grace and peace to you..

image Lawrence OP

Who’s Up for (the exciting conclusion to) An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40

Theological discussion in various venues often pits one position of belief against its opposites. Supporters of one position or another like to issue proposition statements of the form ‘If they would give _____ an honest reading’, ‘once I gave ______ an honest reading’,’ you can’t read _________ honestly and still believe’ or various other permutations that are meant to couch the idea that your position is unsupportable in the light of clear interpretation. In other words, the veiled inference is that theological presuppositions have colored your interpretation of the text and if you would put them aside and engage an honest reading of the text, you would certainly see the validity of the opposing position. Let’s see if that’s a valid argument…

image Before we jump into the conclusion of this series, let’s have a look at how proof-texting works so that the danger in the practice becomes apparent. Suppose we want to ‘prove’ the horrible doctrine of infanticide exists in the Bible. [Atheist polemics use this argument all the time.] The proof-texter searches the Scriptures looking for individual verses or passages that appear to support this abhorrent practice so that they can proclaim the ‘truth’ that God approves the killing of children for pleasure or sustenance and they find these passages:

Psalm 137:9 -  he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

2 Kings 6:28-29 – She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we’ll eat my son.’ So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son so we may eat him,’ but she had hidden him.”

God killing the first born, the Flood, etc. Okay, a quick show of hands. Who believes that God advocates or even suggests a doctrine of infanticide?

No one? Why not?

Because we know the dishonesty of pulling a passage from its context to try to make it match our desired meaning. We know that we are not free to dismiss the surrounding circles of context in the process of developing doctrine and yet, we continue to do so.

The Honest Reading

In the previous post we looked at the importance of making sure that the language we are reading (in this case English) holds the same meaning in the text as it did in the author’s original language. In the passage we are studying, there weren’t any surprises for the honest reader but the reader who wants to load a theological presupposition into the passage might find a bit of difficulty.

Continue reading “Who’s Up for (the exciting conclusion to) An Honest Reading? John 6:37-40”