Doubters Need Apologetical Preaching

In conversations with preachers, I often mention my conviction that we must infuse our preaching with apologetics. In J.I. Packer’s recent book, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, he defines spiritual doubt as:

A state of of divided mind — ‘double-mindedness” is James’s concept (James 1:6-8) — and it is found within faith and without it.  In the former case, it is faith infected, sick, and out of sorts; in the latter, it belongs to a struggle either toward faith or away from a God felt to be invading and making claims one does not want to meet.

As our expositional sermons are infused with apologetic content, preachers help true saints, whose faith is to some degree “infected,” work through their own difficulties and questions while simultaneously equipping these same believers to be sent out on gospel-proclaiming mission in and to a world that is hostile to Christ. In infusing expositional preaching with apologetics, we model for the saints what it looks like to wield the “sword of the Spirit,” the “living and powerful Word of God,” the spiritual “weapons of our warfare” in the face of the wisdom of this world. Paul wrote, “We destroy arguments and qevery lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Packer goes on and explains how we can help doubters; he lists the following three ways:

  1. “By explaining the problem area” (often doubts arise from misunderstandings or from exposure to caricatures).
  2. “By exhibiting the reasonableness of Christian belief at that point, and the grounds for embracing it (for Christian beliefs, though above reason, are not against it)”
  3. “By exploring what prompts the doubts (for doubts are never rationally compelling, and hesitations about Christianity usually have more to do with likes and dislikes, hurt feelings, and social, intellectual, and cultural snobbery than the doubters are aware)”
I would like to add a fourth to Packer’s list. 4. By exposing the hostility of the world that has set itself against Christ. Ultimately, rejection of Christ and the Scriptures is a spiritual problem, not an intellectual one. Doubters from within and without the Christian faith need to see the world for what it is really is, set against Christ.
For my first two attempts at infusing exposition and apologetics, see the following two sermons preached at Lakewood Baptist Church.

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The Gospel, Better than Man-made Religion

As I’ve studied the Gospel of John each week for the last year and a half, I was continually struck by the futility of man-made religion over against the powerful triumph of the gospel.

In John 3, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being “born again” / “born from above,”  a spiritual birth that needs to take place in the life of anyone who desires to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about and so Jesus responds, in 3:10, “Aren’t you a Master of Israel, and you don’t know these things?” Nico was a Pharisees, a group that prided themselves in keeping not only the Law down to the very minutiae, but also in observing man-made boundaries imposed around that same Law. Nicodemus was serious about religion, but yet he was unaware of the promises of the New Covenant relating to the new birth. He was religious, but he had missed the gospel!

Jesus heals a man who had been sick for 38 years in John 5. The religious people of the day try to kill Jesus. In the ninth chapter, Jesus heals a man that was born blind. Since these healings occurred on Sabbath Day, the Pharisees were outraged, and so rather than rejoicing, they interrogate the former blind man and his family and shortly thereafter try to kill Jesus. Jesus is in the healing business; man-made religionists are in the interrogation and protest business.

Carson comments,

Is there not something [really wrong] about religion that objects to the healing of long-term paralytics and the curing of someone born blind?

It actually gets worse.

Do you remember the account of Lazarus and his resurrection from the dead, as recorded in John 11? The Pharisees had a strategy meeting shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus.

11:47 “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. 48 If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.

Apparently, if news had gotten out that Jesus indeed raised a man from the dead, then his popularity would swirl out of control, thus catching the attention of the Roman authorities. The end result would mean that these religious men could lose their positions of authority almost-authority and almost-freedom under the Roman Empire.

Caiaphas decides that it would be easier for all parties involved to simply kill Jesus, the Messiah, rather than deal with the Romans, so we read in 11:53:Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death.”

If seeking to heal the great miracle Worker were not enough, in chapter 12 we see that they even tried to kill Lazarus! What was his crime? Being resurrected? A characteristic of man-made religion is deep anger and hatred for those who have been extended unfathomable grace.

This is the same group of religious folks that took Jesus and tried Him in John 18, trampling and twisting their own legal system in order to murder Him. They tried him at night, which was illegal. They tried him without witnesses, which was illegal. They rendered a verdict and sentence in the same day, which was illegal. They tried him without giving him a formal defense, which was illegal.

And then, they have the audacity to cry out to Pilate in chapter 19:7, “We have a law, and according to our law, He ought to die!”

Really? An appeal to the law after trampling it for your own murderous purposes?

Proponents of Man-made religion could kill their Savior and continue their religiosity. If it were possible for them to execute God, it would change nothing in their day-to-day life. They could have no sheep left to minister to, and this would not bother them for a second, so long as they’ve kept all their man-made rules. For many proponents of man-made religion, it was never ultimately about God and others anyway.

Another author explains that these pseudo-religious people, “build their sense of worth on their moral and spiritual performance, as a kind of resume to present before God and the world.” And in so doing, they believe they can and have earned the grace of God, that they do not and never did stand in need His mercy, and they ultimately miss the gospel.

Man-made religion really boils down to mankind’s attempts to reach up to God with their goodness and efforts in self-righteousness. On the other hand,  the Gospel is about Jesus’ reaching down to rescue mankind from their sin through His work on the cross and resurrection from the grave!

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Words for Love in Biblical Greek

This Sunday, I am preaching on Peter’s restoration from John 21. Since it’s my endeavor to speak on the main point of the passage, i.e. loving Jesus and thus feeding his flock, I will try to abstain from spending too much time droning on and on about the Greek verbs agapao and phileo in the passage. I’ll do a bit of that here instead.

We’ve all heard the well-intentioned sermons that have presented agapao as a sort of ultimate love, while phileo is presented as representing a lower sort of love. Quite frankly, I can’t go along with that distinction, and I don’t think you should either.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Someone just read D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies and now he has to share!” Granted, Carson certainly nails it in Exegetical Fallacies, advances the argument again in the Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, and then sums it up nicely in his commentary on John’s Gospel from the Pillar New Testament Commentary series. However, I want to point out that rejecting a sharp distinction between the two words isn’t really breaking new exegetical ground. In other words, one does not need to rely on D.A. Carson’s works (albeit incredibly valuable) to come to the conclusion that drawing a significant contrast between the two words is exegetically unwise.

If one does a simple study in the Gospel of John alone, we come to realize that both agapao and phileo are used interchangeably when speaking of the Father’s love for the Son (compare John 10:17; 15:9 in which agapao is used to speak of the Father’s love for the Son with John 5:20 where phileo is used to signify the Father’s love for the Son). In the same Gospel account, John typically referred to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Again, what’s interesting is that he is content to use both agapao and phileo as though they can often be used as synonyms.

Further, the go-to lexicon in Greek studies, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), presents this for John 21 and the use of agape and phileo: 

[Agapao and phileo] seem to be used interchangeably here; cf. the freq. interchange of synonyms elsewhere in the same chapter [boskein - poimanein, arnia - probatia, elkuein - surein].

Louw and Nida agree,

Though some persons have tried to assign certain significant differences of meaning between [agapao and phileo], it does not seem possible to insist upon a contrast of meaning in any and all contexts. For example, the usage in Jn, 21:15-17 seems to reflect simply a rhetorical alternation designed to avoid undue repetition.

It’s my contention that when preaching a sermon on John 21, our congregations would be better served by our preaching the main point of the passage, i.e. the connection between Peter’s love for Jesus and his ministry to Jesus’ flock, than by our coming to the text with unfounded notions (that really have been imposed upon the text) about the Greek words for love and then challenging our audience to muster up some sort of super-charged-super-spiritual love.

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Benefits of Studying in Coffee Shops

Since our church is still less than 2 years old, we do not have a permanent facility. Naturally, this provides some challenges, among which is not having a church office. This “challenge,” however, has been one of the biggest blessings so far in my young pastoral ministry.

As a consequence of not having a designated study spot, I have been driven to the local coffee shops (kicking and screaming too). On any given day, you can find me at Stone Creek, Starbuck’s, Black Canyon, Caribou, or my old faithful — Milwaukee Street Traders. I rotate them throughout the month. If I need to get a ton done and don’t care about keeping warm, I go to Starbuck’s because I don’t know as many of the “regulars” there yet. If I want a comfortable chair, I go to Milwaukee Street Traders, because it’s quite literally more comfortable than my living room. And then there’s the coffee! If I want a really good cup, I go to Black Canyon since they brew Alterra, which is clearly America’s best. Anyway, I digress. I am so thankful that I do not have a church office at this point, because I have been sent into a public place for a portion of my study and sermon preparation. Here are the benefits:

  • As I dig through commentaries that often spend way too many pages on matters unimportant to a good sermon, and as I simultaneously am surrounded by real people, I am reminded that my sermon is for people. Shocking, huh? The sermon is not for the scholars who wrote my commentaries, but actually for the electrician who I met in line or the retired man reading the paper next to me. This helps me avoid simply regurgitating commentaries and being too technical in the pulpit each week.
  • As I interact with the lost of every variety, I am reminded to preach apologetically. I am confronted with objections to Christianity every day. These discussions remind me to answer questions for the sheep in my flock, as well as to equip them to answer difficult questions themselves. Because of my experiences at the coffee shop, I usually try to weave apologetics into a sermon by answering potential objections from the passage. Further, I am reminded that some of the objections I regularly hear stem from inaccurate biblical teaching and preaching.
  • As I simply observe the people around me and listen to conversations, I understand more and more about the community to which God has sent me. Church-planters must think like missionaries, seeking to understand their local culture. I’m convinced that places like coffee shops are the present-day version of the Greek agora, i.e. marketplace. Thus, my regular presence there places me in the ministry tradition of the Apostle Paul, my hero and example in evangelism and apologetics.
  • As I’ve gotten to know the “regulars” at each coffee shop, I’ve cultivated many great friendships — ones that have spilled over into shared meals, emails, fishing trips, phone calls, and even visits to church. Because of the coffee shop, I’ve had many opportunities to share the gospel within the context of a genuine relationship.

I praise God that I do not yet have my own “office,” and am purposing now that when the day comes for a church office, I will still study in the coffee shop on occasion!

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Book Review: Keep Your Greek by Con Campbell

I’d like to thank Zondervan for the free copy of Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People. The author, Constantine Campbell is perhaps best known for his work in the area of verbal aspect theory. This book, however, isn’t about that. And we should be thankful! Rather, it is a book that encourages and instructs Greek students to return to tip-top Greek shape and stay there.

Brief Summary 

  1. Read Every Day
  2. Burn Your Interlinear
  3. Use Software Tools Wisely
  4. Make Vocabulary Your Friend
  5. Practice Your Parsing
  6. Read Fast
  7. Read Slow
  8. Use Your Senses
  9. Get Your Greek Back
  10. Putting it All Together

If we could isolate the main imperative of the book, it would be: “Stay in your Greek New Testament.” The rest of the book’s content, then, functions as the participles that show how exactly we should go about staying in our Greek New Testaments and ultimately keep our Greek. Of all the advice shared, perhaps the funniest part was “The interlinear is a tool of the devil, designed to make preachers stupid” (page 19). Of course, Campbell goes on to explain that his comments are to be taken playfully not seriously. The point he is driving at is similar to his caution regarding electronic tools such as Bible Works, Accordance, and Logos. If we use any of these as a crutch, then we will never strengthen our weakest muscles.

As far as honing vocabulary recognition, Campbell suggests using pneumonics and word hooks, i.e. easy ways to remember the words and their meanings. For example, I’ve always remembered ergon by associating it in my mind with ergonomics; the former is the Greek word for work, while the latter is the field that assesses how people and products function within a work environment. Thus, ergonomically sound keyboards and office chairs!

And then there was parsing. Ah! I’m still horrible at parsing participles! Campbell suggests that sometimes as we read that we take time to parse every word in a given section. He insists that our ability will come back, get sharper after some practice, and ultimately assist us greatly in comprehension. He closes the meat of the book by encouraging us to alternate between reading fast (skimming for Greek) and then slow (paying careful attention to as much as possible).

My Thoughts

One of my friends often tells his students half-jokingly, “Sell your personal belongings and buy books.” In this case, however, perhaps I’m not far enough removed from formal Greek class (and I still translate every week for sermon preparation) to see the “sell-your-belongings” value in this resource. I agree with essentially all that is written, but to me it seemed like, “Captain Obvious” information and advice.  I kept reading, hoping that I would find the gold nugget that I was after or stumble upon the secret tip to magically keeping my Greek. That never happened. In one sense, that’s the strength of this book. Campbell is realistic and prescribes nothing more or less than simple hard work for a hard goal. The advice he gives will simply help me get the most of the time that I do have to spend working on Greek. All that being said, the book was a great reminder to stay busy using my Greek. I’ve now scheduled a portion of my morning each day for reading one Greek paragraph.

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Rob Bell and Universalism

The Christian blog world has been rocked this week after Rob Bell’s new book has been announced with the promotional video, LOVE WINS (from Rob Bell on Vimeo). Notable Christian bloggers Justin Taylor, Joshua Harris, and Kevin DeYoung have all weighed in.

Christianity Today blogger, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, has has responded with criticism for Justin Taylor and others for passing judgment before the book it is fully released.

John Piper tweeted, “Farewell Rob,” only to be blasted by Scot McKnight, who wrote to Bailey,

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

Taylor, Piper, DeYoung, and Harris have this right. After watching that video, how much more needs to be seen, heard, or read? Quite frankly, the content of book would have to completely contradict the content in the promotional video in order for Taylor and others to be wrong.

This new video does from Bell does not surprise me at all. I have been following Rob’s trajectory for the past several years. In one sense, I grieve for those who have been influenced by his teaching. I also fear for him, that blackness of darkness has been reserved for him. However, in another sense, I’m glad that he has been unmasked.

What Rob Has Already Said

He writes in Velvet Elvis,

While we were unable to do anything about our condition, while we were helpless, while we were unaware of just how bad the situation was, Jesus died. And when Jesus died on the cross, he died for everybody. Everybody. Everywhere. Every tribe, every nation, every tongue, every people group. Jesus said that when he was lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. All people everywhere. Everybody’s sins on the cross with Jesus. So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God.’ All things, everywhere. This reality then isn’t something that we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making.

To Bell, since Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world is already reconciled to Jesus. The only choice now is not to make this reconciliation true – there is no call for faith and repentance. Rather, the question is: “Are you going to live in this new reality or will you cling to one of your own making?” It has been suggested that Rob’s work has been highly influenced by neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth. Notice the similarities; Barth writes,

The conversion of the world to God has thereofre taken place in Christ with the making of this exchange. There, then, in Christ, the weakness and godlesness and sin and enmity of the world are shown to be a lie and objectively removed once and for all. And there, too, in Christ, the peace of the world with God, the turning of man to Him, his friendship with Him, is shown to be the truth and objectively confirmed once and for all. That is the history which Paul has to narrate. And such it is the history of God with Himself, as he has already said in v. 18. But now it is also the history of God with the world, as we are told in v. 19. And notice that in this respect too (and the two cannot be separated) it has taken place once and for all, the history of a decision which has been taken and which cannot be reversed or superseded. That is how He was in Christ – we might say with Jn. 3:16 that is how He loved the world – and it is the fact, and it is so, it is in force, and must and will be, whether there are few or many who know the fact, and whatever attitude the world may take to it. The world is God’s. Whatever else we may have to say about it (e.g. that it perishes) we must also remember that it is God’s – not merely because it is His creature, not merely because God has sworn to be faithful to man, but because God has kept His oath, because He has taken the world from a false position in relation to Himself, becuase He has put it in that place which belongs to it in relationship with Himself. The reconciliation of the world with God has taken place in Christ. And because it has taken place, and taken place in Christ, we cannot go back on it. The sphere behind it has, in a sense, become hollow and empty, a sphere which we cannot enter. The old has passed away, everything has become new. The new is conversion to God. In v. 18 Paul said that this had happened to him personally in Christ. In v. 19, and as the basis of the former verse, he says that it has happened to the world in Christ. It was a definitive and self-contained event.

If everyone is already reconciled to Christ, then the questions naturally follow: “Who goes to hell?” and “Is there a real place called hell?” Bell gives some answers in his first chapter of Sex God, entitled “God Wears Lipstick.” He writes,

Now if there’s a realm where things are as God wants them to be [heaven], then there must be a realm where things are not as God wants them to be. Where things aren’t according to God’s will. Where people aren’t treated as fully human. It’s called hell.

Ask Rob Bell if he believes in hell and he will tell you that he does. However, his comments in Velvet Elvis may suggest otherwise; he writes,

“Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people.”

In an interview with the Ooze, the online presence of known universalist, Spencer Burke, Rob gives some interesting answers.

Q: You recently preached a sermon called “God wants to save Christians from hell.” I was discussing the message with a guy who after hearing this message was a bit disturbed and somehow came to the conclusion that you didn’t believe in a literal hell. Let me ask you, do you believe in a literal hell that is defined simply as eternal separation from God?

Rob: Well, there are people now who are seriously separated from God. So I would assume that God will leave room for people to say “no I don’t want any part of this.” My question would be, does grace win or is the human heart stronger than God’s love or grace. Who wins, does darkness and sin and hardness of heart win or does God’s love and grace win?

I don’t know why as a Christian you would have to make such declarative statements. Like your friend, does he want there to be a literal hell? I am a bit skeptical of somebody who argues that passionately for a literal hell, why would you be on that side? Like if you are going to pick causes, if you’re literally going to say these are the lines in the sand, I’ve got to know that people are going to burn forever, this is one of the things that you drive your stake in the ground on. I don’t understand that.

Q: Especially when so many fail to recognize the hell that many people are experiencing today and do little about it.

Rob: Yeah, I would think it would be your duty as a Christian to hope and long and pray for somehow everybody to be reconciled to God. If you are really serious about evangelism, as I’m sure your friend would claim, and you wanted to save people from hell, then wouldn’t your hope be that everybody reconciles with God? Why would you hope for anything else? It would be your duty to long for that. I would actually ask questions about his salvation.

You can see that whole interview here.

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When we don’t get holiness right…

Last evening, I taught our church briefly on the ever important topic, the holiness of God. The result was typical; I was deeply convicted during my preparation time.

Good definitions of holiness:

  • Wayne Grudem describes holiness as God’s being “separated from sin and devoted to seeking His own honor.”
  • “The essence of our God’s holiness,” writes Bryan Chapell, “is that He is wholly other. He is separate from anything that could sully His glory or diminish His perfection. He is majestic, elevated, high and lifted up. He is not entangled by His creature’s failures. He is not tainted by earth’s stain. He is pure.”
  • R.C. Sproul maintains regarding holiness, “At times it points toward pure, at other times it points toward separate and at other times it points toward transcendent.”

I believe that there are some serious ramifications in our personal spiritual lives as well as in our corporate spiritual lives when we fail to get the holiness of God right.

  • If we don’t get the holiness of God right, we are committing idolatry. At a certain level, we have all committed idolatry. Each time we sin, we fail to think rightly about God and thus end up worshipping a creature of our own creation instead of the true God who created us. If we miss the fact that God is altogether separated from sin, we cannot possibly be worshippers of the true God at any level.
  • If we don’t get the holiness of God right, the amazement of His love, mercy, and grace will fade into regular, ordinary, common-place cliches that are stripped of their spiritual power. God’s love is amazing precisely because it is undeserved. His mercy captivates us because the judgment we deserve has been withheld. His grace overwhelms hearts because by it we are granted what is undeserved and could never be earned. When holiness is ignored, minimized, or even inaccurately conceived, then in our estimation love becomes deserved, mercy a misnomer, and grace expected.
  • If we don’t get the holiness of God right, we will never see the seriousness of sin nor will we be able to understand the target that we pursue, holiness as God is holy. Isaiah had to see the Lord in all his splendor, grandeur, glory, and holiness before he could respond, “Woe is me, for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6). If we don’t grasp the holiness of God, then we will lose sight of what He expects of us (1 Peter 1:13-16). If we are not careful, instead of seeking to measure up to the holiness of God, we will content ourselves with measuring up to others in our Christian communities or perhaps even comparing ourselves with our unregenerate neighbors.
  • If we don’t get the holiness of God right, we will not be able to worship with the right heart attitude. We cannot possibly have the proper gratitude for our salvation, if we miss God’s holiness, and then we cannot possibly worship Him with a heart overwhelmed from that salvation and overwhelmed with the majesty of His person.

Hebrews 12:4 Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

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