About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where Did I Go?

I have not posted for a couple of weeks for a few reasons:
1 - holiday season - very busy for a pastor
2 - I've been approached about doing a book proposal on the present subject of my blog. I don't know if I will get a contract or not, but I think it wise to suspend the discussion of the subject until I know one way or another.

I apologize for this, I will keep you all informed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why I am No Longer A Calvinist, Part 3

1 Corinthians 2

As I have previously stated, I have real problems with several elements of the "Doctrines of Grace"* AS THEY ARE STATED in "traditional Calvinism." Labels such as "traditional Calvinism" are difficult because a term can mean different things to different people. What I mean by traditional Calvinism, is the system of belief represented by John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, John Piper, John MacArthur, and R. C. Sproul (and others). I realize that even within that camp there are some important variations and perspectives, but overall these writers represent the core five points of what have been called the "Doctrines of Grace," (TULIP) while avoiding going down a road of anti-missions/evangelism. Indeed, those who go down that road are too easy to answer and don't represent traditional Reformed theology anyway.

In the future blogs I will examine what I believe to be biblical problems with each of the points of Calvinism, but I believe there is one more basic element to address that is significant before I do so - The Problems of Systems.

Calvinism is a system, there is no question about it. Ask any learned Reformed theologian and they will tell you that each of the components of the 5 points stand in tension and relationship with the other. To deny any one of them is to leave the others without important support and incomplete. I often hear people say "I am a 4 point Calvinist" because of all the points, there is a natural objection in Baptist life to Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption. However, you really cannot be a "Calvinist" and not accept all 5 points - Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption is a logical and NECESSARY corollary to Total Depravity/Human Inability, Unconditional Election, Irresistible Grace/Effectual Calling, and Perseverance of the Saints/Final Perseverance.

Systems are not inherently bad. In fact, they can be immensely helpful in organizing thought, seeing how various texts work together, and gaining a big picture of important concepts in Scripture. However, they do have some tendencies to them that are potentially problematic and which consistently rear their head especially in the system known as Calvinism.

- A System often becomes more important than Scripture:This problem can manifest in a couple of ways. First, the system becomes the criteria by which all Scriptures are interpreted. Any text that doesn’t seem to fit into the conclusions drawn by the system must be molded to the interpreter’s bias. Of course we all come to the text with a bias and we all are affected in our interpretations by our world view, but there is an added barrier to letting the text speak when we start with the idea that “God has to work this way.” Whenever I hear someone say, “I know it seems to say that, but . . .” with any passage I get defensive. What’s more, if they can’t support the “but” in that sentence with historical and literary contextual observations it becomes more apparent that it is more about the system than the text. A second place where this problem occurs is when preachers become more preachers of the system, than preachers of the Word. There is certain almost idolatrous nature to how some people hold to their system. In Reformed theology, this comes across most clearly in the phrase, “Calvinism IS the Gospel!”** I understand conviction about one’s beliefs, I am arguing as much in this series of blogs. However, an all or nothing approach to any system seems to me to leave little room for paradox, tension in history, and the mystery of God. Especially, when there are texts, concepts, and presentations (as I believe there are with Calvinism) that undermine positions taken. Which brings me to the next problem with Systems,

- A System almost always devolves into an “either, or” mentalityThere is no concept more significant to shaking me up as a Calvinist, and ultimately getting me out of the system than the rampant “either, or” arguments present within it. In particular, the idea that you are either a Calvinist or an Arminian – that there are only a few ways an issue might be dealt with. For example, a fellow blogger was recently commenting on the extent of the atonement. He summarized the nature of his argument and position with the following statement:

“In other words, through the death of Christ, which sinners were forgiven and reconciled with God? There are only three possibilities [regarding the nature of atonement].(1). Every sinner that has ever lived (universalism).(2). Elect sinners--those whom the Father has chosen and given to His Son.(3). Believing sinners--those whom the Father foresaw would believe on Jesus.”

He then goes on to write in the same blog:

“Most evangelicals would answer that question in this manner: For every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live. If the person who holds to this view is then asked, "Will every single sinner who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live be in heaven?" The answer given is "No. The sinner must accept what Jesus has done. The sinner must believe. The sinner must take hold of the atonement that has been offered." So most Christians, when pressed, would have to say the atonement of Jesus actually saves nobody. It is the faith of the sinner in Christ that saves (because of this prevalent belief we ought to consider changing the title of the hymn "Have Faith in God" to "Have Faith in Faith"). The modern evangelical has a belief in a very weak, impotent atonement performed by Christ. God, they believe, actually saves nobody through the cross; sinners are only actually saved through their belief in the cross. I believe the greatest challenge we face in the modern evangelical world is moving people toward a stronger, more biblical and powerful view of what Christ actually accomplished at the cross.”***

Are those really our only options? Is there no room for tension in the text? Are there no other ways to relate the atonement to the believer? Is one really suggesting that “God actually saves nobody through the cross?” if he or she believes Christ died for everyone, but not all will be saved? I will deal with the issue of Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption later, but the point is made that sometimes systems create a mentality of overconfidence in what our reason can do and leaves us with a perspective of, well if you’re not this, then you must be that. The choice is not ONLY between Calvinism and Arminianism, which are viewpoints created within a certain philosophical worldview that does not necessarily line up with the biblical worldview, or other ways of dealing with reality that have been conceived of since that time.

- A System often leads to making up concepts to try and preserve the system.Sometimes, instead of admitting a flaw in the system or simply trying to hold to a more balanced perspective of the overall picture of a situation given in Scripture, systems will lead people to create concepts and practices not expressed in Scripture, but necessary to maintain if one is going to keep his system and also explain other known circumstances. In Calvinism, these types of creations include the two wills of God (a necessary loophole to absolute Sovereignty), the two types of morality (a necessary loophole to Total Depravity), and the two types of atonement (a necessary loophole to Limited Atonement). I have already argued for maintaining tensions in where one is, so this is not an attack on paradox, but when a system requires you to create concepts in order to protect a concept, there is a problem with the system.

- A System allows "acceptance" without understanding its basis
Finally, a major problem with systems is that people come to accept the system without understanding the basis of it. Because the basic premises of the system say things that people like about God, themselves, or life in general they “buy into it” without really realizing all the baggage that they are bringing with it. For instance in Calvinism, I meet people all the time who want to hold to the system without acknowledging Double Predestination. As a Calvinist I did not (and still do not) have a problem with God being able to have predestined people to hell if that is His desire (I don’t believe it is the biblical presentation – something to be looked at later, but I have no problem suggesting He is fully within His rights as God to do as much – He is God), but there are a lot of “Calvinists” who do have problems with it even though the system itself requires it. A similar thing could be said for the “4 point Calvinists mentioned above. Finally, this phenomenon could also be applied from an interpretative and philosophical standpoint as well. I am amazed at how many people who claim both Dispensationalism and Calvinism I come across; though at their heart they are completely incompatible from an interpretation standpoint (because the basis for both systems in their conclusions are completely at odds). Systems lend themselves to this sort of divorce between basis and conclusion because so often they express only the conclusions, without relating or identifying where those conclusions come from. They argue that they are just applying the Bible, when in fact they are proof-texting through a lens of a certain philosophy or worldview.****

A big part of my journey out of Calvinism was a journey of discovery of its basis and the way the system didn’t deal with the greater picture of God’s relationship to man. It was also a discovery of how Calvinism had become in many ways its own sort of idol for me – the irony being that at the very moment I was speaking words about the “greatness of God” I was actually enthralled by the greatness of my own intellect. John Newton (A Calvinist) put it well when he wrote:

“And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of. Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self- righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.”*****

The difference between me and Newton is that I see this as almost an inherent part of the system of Calvinism, because I believe that systems themselves have inherent dangers, and when placed together with some of the content of Calvinism, such is almost unavoidable. In the weeks ahead I hope to outline more specifically where I believe the system of Calvinism has eclipsed some of the content of Scripture as it pertains to Grace and in so doing, stepped into an untenable position biblically speaking.

*I place the words Doctrines of Grace in quotes because I don't believe they rise to the level of Doctrines AS THEY ARE STATED in Calvinism. Doctrines are central tenets of the faith that can render one orthodox or heretical.
** Spurgeon wrote: “It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus.” Spurgeon, “A Defense of Calvinism.”
***http://kerussocharis.blogspot.com/2009/09/atonement-in-plain-english-god-saves-us.html I have a lot of respect for Wade on many levels and do not wish to cast aspersions on his overall character at all.
**** Augustine and Calvin’s understanding of reality itself is problematic and fed into the system they both adhered to in relation to the “Doctrines of Grace.”
***** John Newton, quoted in Credenda Agenda, Vol. 5 No. 2, p. 2, from The Works of John Newton, Vol 1, Banner of Truth, p. 272.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why I am No Longer a Calvinist, Part 2

Psalm 111

Perhaps it is best to start this discussion relating what it is about Calvinism that attracted me to it in the first place. While I cannot speak for someone else, I believe that the things about the system that I found attractive are what lead a lot of people into it. Again, I am not trying to “convert” anyone out of the system; I am simply trying to offer understanding and perspective to those who are not Calvinists and also to lay some foundational topics of discussion that will be components of future installments in this blog. In short, while I believe that each of these elements are laudable motives for pursuing a position (some are indispensible), I will be relating in future blogs why these perceptions of this system are not all that they purport to be.
I was attracted to the system of Calvinism because it is:
- Biblical: It is a rare event to run into a committed Calvinists who cannot quote you chapter and verse of numerous texts that are at the heart of their position. Specific references to predestination, God’s hardening of men’s hearts, being chosen, Grace, the Glory of God, and other emphases of Calvinism are ubiquitous in the Scriptures. Indeed, the presence of these passages is the primary warrant for Calvinists to make the oft-quoted statement that “The Doctrines of Grace are the Gospel” – that is, their position is synonymous with Scripture itself. And let’s be honest, what evangelical Christian does not want to be biblical with every position that they hold – such observations are attractive. When I started into college and really began for the first time to dig into the Scriptures, to search the text for myself and to ask the hard questions before me, Calvinism offered me “biblical” answers.
- God Centered: There is an overwhelming desire that is created within people who discover their lostness and experience God’s Grace to want to do all that they can to praise Him with all that they are. Grace IS wonderful, Grace IS miraculous, Grace IS AMAZING! And when you begin to reflect on this wondrous salvation that has been granted, who wouldn’t pursue a doctrinal position that advocates so clearly man’s complete inability and God’s complete sufficiency? Like the Psalmist, we ask “Who am I?” and relative to who God is, the answer is nobody! Much of Christian teaching in revivalistic churches (such as Baptist) centers on us – My testimony, My salvation, My future, etc…, it’s good to be reminded that God must be the center of everything.
- Unambiguous: Life is full of ambiguity. It is sometimes hard to know right and wrong and to find black and white. In the midst of such experiences, a firm, unshakeable foundation is a joy to find and an immense relief. Calvinism offers this – there are no shades of gray in the system and that is attractive – It’s only God, only His grace, only His choice, only His glory. Ultimately, we can’t argue, we can’t question, we can’t doubt (though we do in our journey – Calvinism recognizes this) because it is His will and who are we to question it? In Bridges book Trusting God (one of my first interactions with Calvinism) this ultimate control, coupled with God’s Goodness, is used to help people get past their circumstances to see a bigger purpose – that purpose being God Himself. Such clarity is comforting it’s easy – even in the face of (or perhaps for some being enhanced by) the self-denial that goes with it as expressed in point two.
- Irenic: There is a calmness to the system that exudes thoughtfulness, depth, and logic. For young people raised in churches full of emotionalism and self-centered teaching, Calvinism offers authenticity to their need to connect with God because it is not about self and it advocates repeatedly letting God be God. This is in some ways an extension of the unambiguousness of the system, but goes more to the heart of the need for depth in churches where shallowness is the norm. That’s attractive, especially as one is trying to “earn his stripes” as an academic and as a means of responding positively to the hypocrisy evident in so many churches that are “man centered” in their teaching.
Looking at the reasons, it’s easy to see the attractiveness of the system. But in my own journey, as I began to gather the bigger picture and to look at ALL of Scripture, and ALL of Christianity, and ALL of who God has revealed Himself to be, I discovered that, in fact, the system doesn’t deliver any of these – except in ways that are inappropriate expressions of them. In the coming weeks, I will outline this as I believe Scripture teaches and God has revealed Himself.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why I Am No Longer a Calvinist - Part 1

Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? They are responsible to the Lord, so let him judge whether they are right or wrong. And with the Lord’s help, they will do what is right and will receive his approval. (Romans 14:4, NLT)

I have been told more than a few times that I represent a rarity, someone who was a Calvinist and left it as he became more educated. While I am not certain how rare that actually is, I am aware of the fact that there is a tendency that as people become more educated, they come to find more and more affinity with Calvinism. Indeed, in my own journey I was not raised a Calvinist, but as I moved into college it was the path that I followed. My early years at Seminary saw me develop even more along those lines and it really wasn't until I moved into advanced studies toward the end of my Master's and throughout my PhD that I moved away from the system known as Calvinism.

Relating this journey to some, they have asked me to write my thoughts on the subject. So over the next couple of weeks, I will attempt to do this in a way that is appropriate and in a way that demonstrates my belief in a sovereign God who is in real relationship with HIS people.

Starting out, let me say a little about the beliefs that I will be expressing over the next couple of weeks:

- It's not about "fairness": One of the elements often raised by those who oppose ONE element of Calvinism - predestination, is that it is not fair of God to choose one for salvation and to choose one for condemnation. I firmly believe that God is God and I cannot determine what is "fair" for a Being who created the concepts of justice, mercy, and grace in the first place. It is about consistency with the revealed word of God.

- It's not about denominationalism or eschatology - While being a Baptist certainly informs my positions, there is a very strong strand of Calvinism in Baptist history. There is no inherent reason why someone cannot be both a strong Calvinist and a Baptist at the same time (despite what some argue :-)). Furthermore, the primary opposition of Calvinists are often diehard Dispensationalists -since I am not a dispensationalist and in fact reject a lot of the interpretative presuppositions of dispensationalism, the struggle between the two schools of thought does not come into play in this discussion. It is about consistency with the revealed word of God.

- It's not about division or purification - I don't want to disfellowship from Calvinists and I hope that those who know me know that I consider all Christians (Calvinist or not) to be brothers and sisters in Christ and worthy of my respect, prayers, and fellowship. I am, in fact, saddened by the militant strides that have been taken on both sides of this issue (both within my denomination and outside it) in classifying "opposition" as being lost, apostate, or ignorant. Disagreement does not have to devolve into name calling or marginalization. I understand that since I am arguring that my approach is biblical, that, by extension, I am implicitly arguing that those who hold to a different approach than me are not. But one can hold a position, argue it forcefully, and still maintain a level of humility and a recognition that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are servants of the same Master I am and are seeking the same truth I am. Paul compels all believers to understand that in relating to other believers, we remember that God is the Master not us, and that as servants, we let the Master deal with other servants about disputable things. In some ways, I see this discussion to be about disputable things.

My purpose over the next several entries will not be to bash Calvinism. I am not writing these articles out of some crusade to see the view squashed - as if someone writing a blog could have a real impact on a movement that has been part of Christianity since at least the time of Augustine (1600 years now). Rather, I am writing this for people who have found my position unique and have wondered about my journey. I won't entertain debate on the subject and I don't believe I will change any Calvinists' minds. I am simply expressing the journey I have traveled over the last 20 years of my life as a theologian.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Blaming God for Sin

James 1:13 - And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else." (NLT)
Jeremiah 32:35 They have built the high places of Baal in the Valley of Hinnom to make their sons and daughters pass through [the fire] to Molech —something I had not commanded them. I had never entertained the thought that they do this detestable act causing Judah to sin! (HCSB)

Over the past several months I have experienced the carelessness of men and women toward their brothers and sisters in Christ on many different levels. Sometimes the carelessness or cruelty has been targeted at me and sometimes at those around me. As one might expect other brothers and sisters in Christ step in at such moments to offer their words of encouragement to the wounded and to let them know that God is with them in the midst of their loss. This is good! This is what the Church is supposed to do and who Christians are supposed to be! And, when the encouragement is offerred to me I take it as it has been intended and I am grateful for people who care enough to encourage!

Still, at times the words that are expressed by well meaning believers can communicate a view that the sin of those who have caused harm is God's. "God has a plan" is a phrase that offers hope and encouragement that God will turn the evil of man into good without making Him responsible for the activity. But more than once I heard phrases that made the sinful acts of man somehow God's doing.

Since Augustine, determinism has been a part of a Christian worldview to varying degrees. Some are full-fledged determinists who believe that God does actually cause the actions of men.

Calvin wrote: "That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture." (Institutes 1.18.1).

Few (if any) of the people I have encountered over the last few weeks would be comfortable with this quote, yet their words of what God is "doing" in the sinful actions of men reveals that they have been shaped by this sort of thought. Of course, all monotheistic religions struggle with the degree of their god's interaction with the actions of men - If the Christian's God is sovereign all things in some way fall into His purview.

But, how does Calvin's perspective square with passages that clearly state that God is not the author of sin? Herein lies the problem with systems. Once God has been categorized, identified, and defined by our theology - then ALL must fall into that system. And systems rarely seek balance between different revelations, rather it emphasizes one over the other in order to create a "logical" outcome. For the Calvinist the doctrine of God's Sovereignty, for Arminians the doctrine is God's benevolence, for those who are neither any number of doctrines can become preeminent at the expense of others.

What I want to suggest here is that a perspective or outlook on life that blames Him for the evil of man is not consistent with the total picture given in Scripture. Please note I am not saying He only gives blessings and has no role in the bad that happens to people in general, what I am saying is that as moral agents WE ALONE are responsible for the sins we commit - God does not tempt.

I will be expanding on these thoughts in the weeks ahead. But for now, choose words carefully. Every phrase we utter communicates something about what we believe.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Waiting on the Lord

There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven. (Ecc. 3:1, NLT).

I have often related to my students in class the importance and power of timing in all that we do in ministry. Now that I am in a pastorate, I find myself having to learn that lesson in practice that I already knew though my intellect. I see things that I would like to do, places I would like to go, and activities that I would like to implement - but I know that for most of those things, the time is not right yet.

One reason for waiting is that people are often not ready for change, and even when they are, you have to take it slowly and methodically. No one wants to be jostled too much, too quickly (including myself). But a bigger reason for waiting is the need to hear the voice of God in the route He would have us go. Sometimes the plans that we have in mind are more about us than they are about Him. Sometimes the plans are His, but the timing isn't right.

I am not one that believes that we need to walk on eggshells about the future and the routes we take. I believe that if we are doing what God desires of all of His people on a day to day basis (prayer, Bible study, evangelism, worship), our very desires will be shaped by that contact and so we can operate with confidence; both in ourselves and the fact that God will be with us. On the other hand, I also know that the Bible is clear that it is God who orders the universe and sets things in their proper time. On one level that is extremely liberating, but on another it calls for a certain degree of sensitivity to God's leading and a willingness to wait on the Lord.

I have no doubt that I will make mistakes. I have no doubt there will be times of resistance. What I hope is that in the midst of those moments, one of the things I can fall back on is the realization that I am doing things as God would have them done and in a Spirit of trusting Him for the outcome, and not my own skillful planning. God is good and His timing is perfect. I just have to stop every once in a while and remind myself of that!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Am I Worthy? Developing a proper view of the good God does.

Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. (James 1:17, HCSB)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about being a place that I had never been before. I wondered what the future would hold and the impact that the uncertainty would have on my Christian walk and faith. I concluded by observing. "I know God has prepared me for this journey and that He is with me through it all. I just hope that like Saul, when I come out on the other side, I will continue to "grow more capable ([Acts] 9:22)" in His power and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit."

Tomorrow I start a weekend process of introduction with the members of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford - a process that will hopefully culminate with a call to be their pastor. I am excited about the situation, I am amazed at the opportunity, and I feel unworthy of the responsibility (which of course I am). From where I am sitting, this is a totally positive set of circumstances. Almost, too positive.

Yep, you guessed it. My analytical nature has kicked in and instead of reveling in the wonder of God's goodness, I find myself asking questions. Questions like, am I worthy? Not "Am I worthy" in the sense of do I deserve these blessings from God - the answer to that is clearly "NO!" But, does the fact that there has been no break, no blips, no concerns, and no problems in this whole process indicative of the fact that I couldn't handle such hardships? I mean we read that He will not give us a temptation that is more than we can handle (1 Cor 10:13), so does that then mean if a situation arises in which there would have been temptation, but then passes without the temptation manifesting itself, does that mean we couldn't have handled it so God kept us from it?

I'm just having fun here! I hear logic like that all the time from students and others - taking texts and statements in directions they were never meant to go. And, truthfully, my mind wanders in those directions all the time and has briefly taken the trip described above - not to the degree described, but enough to cause me to not be thankful for the good going on in my life. But then I realize how foolish that is, I praise God that He has blessed me in ways beyond my expectations and I find myself once again in awe of a truly awesome God. (Besides, even if I didn't have to go through it because He actually was protecting - that in itself would be cause for praise of Him, not disparagement of myself).

James tells us that the Father of Light is the source of all blessing. I believe blessing is everywhere. Our very existence is an act of grace and the sustenance of God is a blessing beyond description. The speed at which this process has occurred didn't really allow for the type of uncertainty I was expecting (uncertainty is present, but of a different sort), but I do believe that through this process I have certainly grown in the Lord and in my knowledge of Him. Among other things, I have learned to be more vigilant in preserving a thankful heart. My tendency is to doubt the good, but when I stop to realize that all the good comes from God, I soon realize as well that doubting the good is in fact an expression of doubting His goodness - and that my friends, is sin.

Though this part of the journey was not full of the stresses I expected, I know there will be difficult times ahead. I pray that the lessons already learned will allow me to see the good in all that comes and to praise God who is indeed the only one who is worthy!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Roads - Being Clear About Who We Are

“You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket,a but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shinea before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." (Matt. 5:14-16)

During our visit to Washington DC this week, we took two trips out of the city. For the first trip, we left Washington to visit some friends in Maryland. Though we attempted to follow the Google directions, few of the streets in Washington go in a straight path and they also change names frequently. As a result we ended up getting onto the thoroughfare to Maryland at a different place than the instructions assumed we would. Normally this wouldn't be that big of an issue, but this particular road is marked only sparsely and when it is marked it is only named by its common name, not its official name - not being from the area, we were never really certain we were on the right road. In fact, it wasn't until we had traveled for sometime that we finally saw the official highway name and could relax that we were in fact on the right path.

This road reminded a lot of the how the Church often functions. We too often lose clarity. Sometimes it happens when we assume people will know what we are about. We use the language of the culture, but we rarely speak about who we are and what we believe. As a result, strangers come in contact with us and the road seems beautiful and well traveled, but there is always an uncertainty as to exactly who we are, what we are about, and where we are going - we have exchanged "relevance" for the Truth that Christ has called us to and that the world needs to see. At other times we put up the signs, but we do so in a language that only the initiated and informed can read. When this happens, we might be able to say that we have been proclaiming who we are, but if those traveling our path can't make sense of our signs - what good are they?

A few days after our first trip we took a second. For this trip we were heading into Virginia. Interestingly, like the first route, the highway we were on changed names/numbers numerous times along the way, but this time, we never once doubted that we were on the right path. The reason for the difference is simply that every 10th of a mile there was a marker telling us exactly which road we were on.

This is how the Church ought to function. Time, culture and circumstance sometimes causes us to change paths methodologically - maybe to go by different names (like our brothers and sisters in countries where the Church is outlawed), or going in different directions (like some of the healthier cultural shifts that have occurred in the American Church over the last few decades). But in the midst of the changes we have to be clear in who we are - we can't assume people know what the Church is and become an group committed to entertainment with clarity or identity. But neither can we speak a language only we understand. Along the shifts and changes that we go through we have to clearly, and often, say who we are so that strangers who cross our paths know where they are and what (or rather Who) we are leading them too.

Jesus used the images of light, a city on a hill, and a lamp in a house to express the nature of His followers. Each of these images speak about clarity, faithfulness, and strength of position. The images are not about glory or fame - something the Church has often forgotten. As individuals and as a corporate body, let us all seek to be clear about who we are.

"And how is clarity to be achieved? Mainly by taking trouble and by writing [or existing] to serve people rather than to impress them." F. L. Lucas

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Critical Spirit, but a Constrained Tongue

"but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poisons.(James 3:8, HCSB).

As I was considering what to write about this week, I went back and reread some of my previous posts. To my embarrassment, I noticed several typos and awkward constructions. I then started to think about all the papers I have graded over the course of my academic career and how many times on those papers I wrote the phrase, "awkward construction" and then proceeded to deduct points accordingly. I don't regret such grading, nor do I find my past activities hypocritical when I myself fall prey to such activity today - mistakes happen. But I do wonder, how many readers looked at those mistakes and thought "Geez, he should be able to do much better than that!" (readers, there is no need to reply on that point :-)). I also thought about how many times I had judged the quality of the person by the grammatical correctness of their speech, and it is to that issue that I feel led to speak.

I see children "correcting" each other about how a line in a movie really went or chastising each other over menial realities that don't really matter. I see adults with angry words about the idiocy of someone who just cut them off or critical of someone who wasn't as friendly as we thought they ought to be. It would seem that a critical spirit is part of the human condition. Indeed, it might be impossible, this side of heaven, to hold every thought captive that pops into our head about others. But I do believe there is a place in the process where we can take control, and that is before such thoughts are transformed into words and leave our mouths.

James says the tongue is "full of deadly poisons." This imagery is powerful about the need to control our tongue. Especially in light of the central image of the Church as the Body of Christ. Poison does not stay localized in a body. Once it has gained entrance, it spreads through the entire system, infecting and destroying as it goes. When we allow a critical thought or spirit to be transformed into a critical word, we have exponentially expanded the impact that such thoughts have on ourselves and all those who are part of the Body - We have poisoned the Body of Christ!

I have made it my goal to always consider my thoughts before speaking them. Sometimes this leads to awkward silence, and sometimes maybe even to awkward constructions. But I trust that such awkwardness will be more easily forgiven than the critical word that might have been spoken.

"He who sedulously attends, pointedly asks, calmly speaks, coolly answers and ceases when he has no more to say is in possession of some of the best requisites of man." - Johann Casper Lavater

My prayer is that I can be that kind of man!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Children's Theology

"I assure you: Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15, HCSB)

This past week while the boys were watching the worship channel (hoping the Tim Hawkins ad would come on) Will attempted to turn all the Scripture verses into a song. As a result, he started repeating the refrain "Your ways oh God are Holy!" - A precious moment to be certain. But the event took an unexpected turn when Jonathan decided to sing back-up by repeating behind Will's refrain "home-made, home-made." Though confused in lyric, the content of the repetition expressed a profound reality when one stops to think about it - God's ways are home-made, and in a couple of ways.

His ways are His - they are made by Him alone. We do not dictate to Him. That is in fact one of the elements of holiness - His separateness, His distinctiveness and His loftiness.

Also, God's ways must be the center of the home. They make the home and they shape our paths. The home that follows His ways is the home that stands the test of time.

It was not the first time that I had personally heard a child confuse words being spoken to powerful effect. I will never forget a young child standing in the seats in church while we sang "At Calvary," and instead he shouted:

"Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty

What seems clear from these events is that children make connections about their view of God and transfer those thoughts into words as they believe they fit. They're not always right, but there is a simplicity and clarity in their thought that is something to be valued. I know as a professor and pastor my passion is always to see people go deeper in their faith and to see them to start to catch a glimpse of the power that God is and the sufficiency of His Grace - to understand the life that we have in Him.

On the other hand, there is certainly a value to recognizing the simplicity of the Gospel. That there is a God and He is GOOD. A childlike faith is the heart of how we are called to accept the Kingdom of God by our Savior. A faith that is unfettered, unqualified, and unconditional. A faith that sees all theology as relational in nature - not us-centered (for that is childishness, not childlikeness), but a faith that understands that everything we believe must be understood in terms of the effect it has on our relationship with God and with others. Without that, theology is nothing more than dry dogma and false religion.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Place I Have Never Been Before

Acts 9:9 He was unable to see for three days, and did not eat or drink (HCSB).

I have often wondered what went through Saul's mind during these three days of blindness. His whole life had been changed with his conversion on the Damascus road and now he sits in that city waiting and wondering where that change would lead. What would he do, where would he go, how different would his life be? He did know one thing, his life was in the hands of his Savior and Lord and he was no longer walking the path of his own making. What a rush of emotions - excitement, wonder, curiosity, and even a great overriding sense of peace must have been his. Most likely, though blind at the time he knew he was seeing more clearly at that moment in life than he every had before!

Since receiving the word that my future no longer included a stay at Southwestern, I have entered into a totally new experience. I have always had a "base of operations" in my adult life that kind of defined me. I went from high school to college to seminary, with little to no break in between each. When I graduated with my PhD I was introduced as "Dr. Pierce, Assistant Professor of Old Testament." I have never had a time when I didn't have a planned future, a certain path, and a clear understanding of myself. Now that is exactly where I find myself - a place I have never been before.

What awaits me and my family? I am, like Saul must have been, full of excitement, wonder, curiosity. I don't know where I am headed, and truthfully there is some fear involved too. I am wandering around in a type of darkness and I want to see clearly. At this point, however, I just have to trust that the One who is leading me is enough - and in that knowledge I do find an overriding sense of peace.

I know God has prepared me for this journey and that He is with me through it all. I just hope that like Saul, when I come out on the other side, I will continue to "grow more capable (9:22)" in His power and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

God is Good!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sermon: Praying for the Right Things


Sermon on Praying for the Right Things, from Mark 10:34-45.

Delivered at Highland Terrace Baptist Church During the Contemporary Service, 05/24/09

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Practice what we Preach?

Over the last couple of weeks I have been struggling with the role of integrity in the ministry. Actually, I have been struggling with what matters and what doesn't as it applies to integrity. I am well aware of the matter of non-essentials and how the Church has been called to look past these matters of debate in favor of the big issues of Church unity and the cause of the Gospel (Rom. 14). But what about when something is a non-essential and a person chooses to be deceptive about it?

For instance, through my years as a seminary professor I have often come upon ministers who take the term "Dr." on their name, though they alleged doctorate that they have is either honorary or from a degree mill. Now, it is no secret why a person would do such a thing - a doctorate adds "standing" to his or her work (and admittedly some churches won't look at a person who does not have that title). Furthermore, I truly believe that degrees are non-essentials in many respects. My brother has only a Bachelor's degree, yet I would not hesitate for a second to place my family and myself under his leadership as my pastor.

So, what is our demeanor to be when we run into a person who has a "doctorate," even though they did nothing to earn the degree? What does it say about a man or woman who is willing to falsify their credentials for a title?

Paul outlines the qualifications for a overseer/pastor/elder in 1 Timothy 3. The first of these qualifications listed is that the man must be "above reproach." It would seem to me then that integrity is considered the primary qualification for a man who seeks to be an overseer/pastor/elder. If that is so, when one goes down the path of claiming a title which one did not truly earn, I think the church has a responsibility to call him on it and to require an answer. It's not the degree that matters, it's the integrity of the heart claiming the degree that does. And I would venture to say that a person willing to cut corners on such a menial matter, will also be willing to cut them in other places - places that may leave the church in real trouble.

This is but one example of the matter of integrity - we all could be held to account for places where we cut corners. My focus here is not an individual or even pastors as a whole, my point, rather, is the call to be "above reproach" as a Christian. For we must all realize that Paul's list of qualifications in 1 Timothy were not meant to be understood simply as things desirable in Pastors, but pictures of the mature Christian we all seek to be. We ALL need to practice what we preach (myself included)!

Francis Bacon put it this way: “It's not what we eat but what we digest that makes us strong; not what we gain but what we save that makes us rich; not what we read but what we remember that makes us learned; and not what we profess but what we practice that gives us integrity.”

May we all seek to find integrity in what we do!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

God's Gift to Me - My Wife Kristy!

When I was only six months old, an event took place that would change my life forever, though I wouldn't realize it for 18 more years. On June 7, 1969, a little red headed girl was born to Kenneth and Penny Kilpatrick. Like many girls she would play with dolls, fight with her brother, and laugh with her friends. She came to Christ as a young girl in Williams, Arizona - a decision that would eventually lead her to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas.

At Wayland, some 13 hours away from Arizona, she would cross paths with with another Arizonan and win his heart in moments. Though it would take some convincing on her part, I knew immediately that she was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. She had beautiful Irish eyes, an amazing smile that could light up an entire room and a sweet disposition that made even my timid college freshman personality comfortable in her presence. Two years later in December, 1989, we were married. Six years later we would have our first child (a girl), soon followed by two boys.

Today, we're looking at 20 years of marriage. She is even more beautiful, more loving, and more amazing than when we first met 22 years ago. On this June 7, her birthday, I thank God for such a great gift. She has been my strength when I felt like giving in. She has been my encourager when things looked darkest - pointing me toward the One who is ultimately the Hope for all of us. She is a blessing beyond description. She is my light and my life. I praise you God for all my blessings, but none more so than my wife Kristy. Happy Birthday Sweetheart!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Does God Want People Dead? Imprecatory Psalms and the Christian

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137:9, ESV)

With the possible exception of the herem (Deut. 7:1-11; 20:16-18) [a topic for a later blog], the Imprecatory Psalms such as Psalm 137 represent some of the most difficult texts with which the Christian must grapple. After all, how can one possibly reconcile the above quoted sentiment with Jesus' commands to "Love your enemy" and "Turn the other cheek?"

The question is one that is finding interest even in the secular media. The ABP reports that recently on The Alan Colmes show a fairly high profile Southern Baptist Pastor expressed that he presently prays Imprecatory Psalms. Apparently, Wiley Drake, a pastor in California and one time Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention prayed such prayers against George Tiller (the recently murdered late term abortion doctor) and admits to praying such prayers as well against President Obama (http://www.abpnews.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4126&Itemid=53). His reasoning is that such Psalms are the spoken will of God and that praying them is nothing more than agreeing with God. That being his position, he falls back on the "I just preach the Bible" line that has characterized a lot misappropriations of the Sacred Text over the years as if his understanding of such texts represents the plain, normal reading of the material and to question it is to question the authority of the Bible itself.

To be fair, there are those who take a different tact than Drake on such texts that do so using a view of the Bible that does question its legitimacy. Scholars have argued that these Imprecatory Psalms are nothing more than the residue of ancient superstitions and that such thoughts on the part of the Psalmist are, in fact, sinful. Obviously, those taking this view would conclude that these Psalms have no place in Christian life or thought.

But is there not a mediating position that both takes seriously such texts as divinely inspired texts without also going down the road of praying for the death of those we view as "sinners?"

At issue here are numerous issues - the nature of inspiration, proper biblical interpretation, and one's view of God.

Apparently, Drake has a view of inspiration which suggests that the Bible is solely God's words, thoughts, and expressions. I can't speak for him specifically, but it would seem that his starting point is almost a dictation view of inspiration, with little to any contribution coming from the writer's outlook, life, and thought. This view goes further than the verbal plenary view of inspiration which many evangelicals (myself included) hold to which says that there is nothing in Scripture God did not want there, and nothing excluded that He did want there - every word is God's. Yet, God in His revelation did not seek to override the human to the point he disappeared. God spoke within history, using the hurts, questions, fears, and other limitations of man in order to perfectly relate His will for mankind and how we might relate to Him. This fact is revealed in the differing styles, perspectives, and observations of the biblical writers (cf. 2 Peter 1:21 - moved by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.) In the Psalms, this interaction between God an human finds expression in words of real sorrow and grief, real hurt over circumstances, and real anger over the circumstances that caused that hurt and grief. In other words, they are words that God wanted expressed in the text, but not necessarily His desire in expression.

Biblical interpretation must be done mindful of the genre of the text and the historical context. The genre of Imprecatory Psalm is a subset of Lament - an extreme expression of grief. Historically, these psalms were used as a means of praising Yahweh's greatness and power over the nations and life, addressing the hurt and pain the people of God were feeling, and calling on God to address that hurt. They are not reflections on God's desire for people. On the contrary, their purpose was actually an instrument of God to change the hearts of His people and to reveal His greatness to the nations. Like ALL the Psalms, they are expressions of worship!

Therefore, if one is to pray these psalms, one doesn't do so because he or she believes God wants these people to die; rather, one prays these psalms in order to be moved into a perspective of the world from God's viewpoint. And what is God's viewpoint - it is always redemption of both ourselves and others! These prayers awaken a realization of the tension we live in between the fallen world and seeking God's will. God doesn't seek to destroy the person, but that in the person that separates us from Him. It is a cry of sorrow at the present world order, and a plea to God to alter it. Such prayers are simply another way of praying the model prayer's "your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Such texts are not easy. I don't claim to have the last word on them. But I believe I have approached the texts with a voice that is both consistent to the biblical worldview and able to speak appropriately to a world of God's grace and desire for redemption - not destruction. Oh, His wrath is real, but it is never portrayed in Scripture as the starting point.

Finally, it is not so much the faulty interpretation that is the problem with Drake's approach - we all have places where we misinterpret the text at times. Rather, it is the spirit of arrogance that suggests his reading is the only right one and that takes a much debated text (even among conservative evangelicals) couches his take on the matter as "God's viewpoint." Such is the spirit of a false Fundamentalism that exchanges our viewpoint for God's and actually puts us over the text instead of in subjection to it.

Sermon: The Family, Genesis 2


Sermon on the Family from Genesis 2:
Delivered during the contemporary service at Highland Terrace Baptist Church, 02/01/09.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Inadequate in Myself

We are not adequate to think anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy comes from God (2 Corinthians 3:5)

The grace of God! We often think of it solely in terms of justification and the transformation that takes place at that moment, but it encompasses all that we are and do. Apart from that grace we are nothing and can do nothing.

As I undertake the task of blogging, I do so mindful of the fact that in myself I have nothing to share. Any gifts I possess, any thoughts I express; all are the product of my relationship with God and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

The blogs here will sometimes involve reflections on theological or philosophical matters. Sometimes I will include elements from life and family (not that those first two can ever really be separated). But mostly, I think what goes on here will be a chance for me to fellowship with friends and family and to further catch a glimpse of how BIG God is and how sufficient His grace is to every aspect of my life.