Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Agnosticism vs. the Ubiquitous, Invisible Presupposition

A dear friend of mine who has abandoned Christian belief to become an agnostic naturalist has challenged me to set forth an absolute Biblical ethic to counter his relative, culture-based ethic. He maintains that the Scriptures present a contradictory account of what is right and wrong, and that there are no truly absolute ethics - even if we look to the Bible as the standard. After I began to present an absolute Biblical ethic based on the Law/Gospel distinction and the twin concepts of love for God as the ultimate good and sin against God as the ultimate evil, and as I was building upon these ideas, my friend replied that if there is no God then this ethic is meaningless and useless. My reply to that:

Sure, but aren't you stating the obvious here? Either position is a matter of faith, or belief in something which can't be proven. You will say there is no proof for the God of the Bible. I will agree. But I will add that without Him there cannot even be the idea of proof or of proving things. Without Him there can be nothing to prove, no reality, no anything. He is the ubiquitous, invisible Presupposition you unwittingly presuppose even in your arguments against Him.

You have a competing presupposition that prevents you from acknowledging the logical necessity of God. It is the idea that you are a capable judge of what is real, or that all significant reality is perceptible to you via your senses (i.e., your perception of the natural world) and thoughts (or at least perceptible to another human who will relay his perceptions to you). You do not accept that there may be a sovereign Determiner and Creator of reality who alone is the true Perceiver of all that is actually "real" and "significant."

I don't know if my answers are any good for my friend, although I believe they reflect Truth. What would you say to a friend who has turned from the faith but still wants to talk to you about it?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

WHO did you get for Christmas?

That's the question I asked my family this year, after we read the Nicene Creed together. Because God did not give us someTHING for Christmas. He gave us someONE. His only begotten Son.

The Ashton family wishes you a Merry Christmas, in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.
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Friday, December 24, 2010

The Mercy of God - A Christmas Reflection

Here's a brief reflection shared at the Christmas Eve service at Lakeside Community Church.

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”


The theme of Mary's song is the mercy of God.

This mercy is portrayed in almost every line as an act of God in behalf of the needy. It is God opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble.

The word “mercy” is sometimes used as a verb in the Bible. God “mercies” the poor, He “mercies” the needy, He “mercies” the humble, the helpless, the undeserving, the desperate, the broken . . . the repentant sinner and the despised, guilty soul. God in His mercy is on the side of the worthless outcasts and the destitute wanderers.

Mercy is God providing what is needed for those who cannot provide it for themselves. Mercy is God's work in behalf of the helpless. Mercy is God's kind, gracious action for the benefit of those who do not deserve His kindness. Mercy is God's strength defending the weak.

Mary views the miracle of the incarnation - the news that she, a virgin, is with child - as evidence of God's great mercy toward His people. For if God is doing such a miraculous work, it means that He has not abandoned His people. He has not forgotten His covenant with them. He has not canceled His promise, but will surely fulfill all that He has said.

God reveals His love to us in the form of a covenant of mercy because He knows we have nothing to contribute. He knows we will fail. He knows we do not have what it takes to meet Him half way. We wouldn't even get started on the journey without his help, so He comes all the way to us, gives us the will, and leads us step by step, holding our hand all along the way.

He promises, “I will be with you.”
He promises, “I forgive you.”
He promises, “I will restore you.”
He promises, “I will give you strength.”
He promises, “You are mine; I have you; I am your God.”

All of this is mercy.

We find ourselves undeserving of Him! And we need an unbreakable promise to reassure us that our sin and weakness and guilt - and the frailty of our faith - have not succeeded in separating us from His love. Will not succeed. Cannot succeed.

God's mercy is given freely to those who come to Him empty handed.

Mary knew she would receive little mercy from her neighbors, who probably viewed her as an immoral young woman. She knew she would receive little mercy from the synagogue rulers, who would surely expel her from fellowship. She knew she would receive little mercy from Joseph, who was preparing to leave her to her fate. She knew she would receive little mercy from the government that would force her to march all the way to Bethlehem in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. But with God she was guaranteed mercy! And so she could sing in the midst of great uncertainty.

Mercy is the healing medicine that holds battered families together. It restores troubled marriages. It reignites loyalty and devotion in friendships that have become strained. It opens a door of healing and hope in the barren, bombed out wreckage of what used to be a relationship.

I want to ask you whom you have “mercied.” I want to ask you if you have showered undeserved grace and favor upon those around you. I want to ask you if you have done mercy to others.

Instead I have to ask the more important and foundational questions: Have you come to Jesus spiritually poor, having nothing worthy to offer Him? Have you confessed your immense ingratitude and the myriad ways you have rebelled against His supreme authority? Have you brought your mountains of sin to Him? have you come to holy Jesus empty handed and wretched, deserving nothing but His wrath? Was your head lowered down in shame? Were you afraid to open your eyes and peer up at His eternal majesty? Have you seen the look on His face? Did you see the fire blazing in His pure, sinless eyes? Was it anger you saw there, or the fulfillment of a promise? “I will mercy,” says the Lord God Almighty! “I will justify the ungodly. I will seek and save the lost. I will heal the backslider. I will restore the broken. I will pardon the rebel. My kindness will lead sinners to repentance. Where their sin abounds, my grace will abound all the more, and My mercy will triumph over judgment!” Have you trusted His promise to show mercy, and received the forgiveness He is freely extending?

Jesus Christ is the mercy of God! No wonder Mary sung of mercy in response to His conception in her womb.

If you have known the stunningly scandalous mercy of Jesus Christ, if you have seen His overflowing kindness, if you have been set free from the duty to pay back your multiplied debts and your infinite obligations to the holiness which you have so heinously violated, if you have been completely delivered from the guilt of sin – then I do not need to ask you if you are showing mercy to others. You surely are.

God did not send His Son to lay another damning obligation upon our shoulders - this time an obligation to practice mercy. In Jesus Christ He provided an unshakable and infallible motivation by which we would most assuredly "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly" with our God!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas to All

May you know Jesus Christ - our Savior - our Lord - our Maker - our Healer - the Holy God Who became Perfect Man, who lived, and suffered, and died to bring sinners home to the Father.

"I Heard the Bells" - Casting Crowns Version

"I Heard the Bells" - Poem Recited by a Cute Little Kid

Friday, December 17, 2010

Response to Roger Olson: A More Biblical Analogy

Roger Olson has offered a challenge to Calvinists in this post: A Good Analagy to the ULI of TULIP.
In answer to his question: "Which scenario better fits the biblical data, our understanding of God’s character, and our sense of justice?" . . . I'd have to say, "Neither." 
The distorted Calvinistic scenario Olson borrows from William Klein reinforces my suspicion that even the most irenic Arminians really don't "get" Calvinism. Which reinforces my suspicion that real, Biblical Calvinism can only be grasped by revelation, not mere human reasoning. Fundamental to Olson's misconception is the fact that mankind did not merely put himself in a position to become spiritually dead through the fall - no, man killed himself through his transgression. Spiritual death is not something that is going to happen to sinful man; it is something that already has happened to Him. "For on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die."
Here is an alternative scenario with a more accurate Calvinism, complete with the "reversified" names:
1. The people now known as Srennis were once infinitely blessed by their Lord and Maker, Rotaerc, and enjoyed splendid fellowship with Him. For reasons no one can fathom, they decided to rebel against Him. As a result, they went insane and committed suicide, one and all alike.

2. Rotaerc loves the Srennis greatly, but He respects their freely made choice to kill themselves out of their sheer irrational hatred for Him.

3. Rotaerc sends a miracle-working Hero named Susej to the Srennis. The Hero raises 40% of them from the dead. As they awaken, they are at first deeply ashamed of their inexcusible rebellion and wish only to die again. But the Hero's assistant, Tirips, assures every one of them individually that Susej has paid an immeasurable price for their transgression, and they are fully forgiven. Then, as Tirips whispers reassuringly to them, they raise their heads with delight to look upon the Hero's luminous countenance and find rest for their hearts in His grace-filled eyes. They are so grateful and captivated that they never take their eyes off of the Hero again.

4. In their peripheral vision, the Srennis can still see the carnage around them, and each one realizes he could have been - and by any just measure should have been - left dead like the others. The Hero looks upon the Srennis with deep compassion and tells them not to fear, for they are His chosen and His beloved. Each one marvels that the Hero has chosen to bring him to life, and is mystified as to why he would be the undeserving recipient of such amazing kindness. And the Hero gives the Srennis a new name: Srennis-Devas!

5.  Through His assistant, Tirips, the Hero reveals the wonders of Rotaerc's undying love, and promises to lead the Srennis-Devas back to Him.  They follow the Hero onto a huge, brightly gleaming boat made of pure polished diamonds, provided by Rotaerc Himself. Susej takes them away to a new land where there is no possibility of rebellion or the horrible results it brings. As they travel, the Srennis-Devas remember how Susej looked with pity even on the dead, and how Tirips whispered to all of the dead and offered them water, even though they remained stone cold and unresponsive. Only 40% of the boat's capacity is filled, and some say they can hear the unmistakable sound of weeping from within the Captain's quarters.

6. The Srennis-Devas arrive safely in Rotaerc's land and rejoice with Him forever, basking in the glorious glow of their beloved Hero and Lord - His Son Susej - and enjoying blessed fellowship with Tirips the Holy. Although they do not know why Susej left many of their brothers dead, the Srennis-Devas do not accuse Him of injustice. Rather, they fall down breathless before His goodness and enduringly trust in His pure justice and mercy.

As is the case with all analogies, this one is not perfectly accurate and has limits. However, it's a sight better, more Biblical, more fitting to the concept of justice, and more like the character of God than the ones offered in Dr. Olson's blog post. Wouldn't you say so?

New "Arminocalvinist" Music Group Features Roger Olson and John Piper

At the risk of losing any credibility this blog might have gained in the last two and a half years, we now submit what some will certainly consider to be a profane and horrifying display of disrespect and worldliness. To such I would simply urge a loosening of the phylacteries.

Seeing as the rest of you have a sense of humor, you will probably enjoy this video featuring the irenic Arminian, Roger Olson, rocking out with some of our Calvinist friends at a local seeker church. This group calls itself "45:12", which apparently means "four 5-pointers and one 2-pointer." But some have hinted that the name might be a cryptic reference to Isaiah 45:12, sneaked in by Piper in an attempt to subliminally influence Olson toward meticulous sovereignty. Olson mentioned to me in a private conversation that he was aware of this plot, and was planning to write 3 books, published by 5 different publishers, in response. Piper will not be named explicitly in any of the books, but will rather be referred to as "a leading Baptist proponent of the Young, Restless, Reformed movement who has authored many books and pastors a big church in Minneapolis, whose name you would recognize . . ."

Piper says he knows that the group is controversial, but he is committed to reaching out to seekers. "I know some will say this is compromise, but I say, uh, 45:12 is all about sharing great contemporary music with the whole world - even seeker sensitive, um, for lack of a better word - false shepherds - who masquerade as Gospel preaching Evangelicals. But, as Roger would say, we have to keep the doors of the [finger quotes] big tent wide open for whatever heresy wants to call itself Evangelical."

Disclaimer #1: This is only a joke. None of this actually happened.
Disclaimer #2: Don't get too excited, Spurgeon has not been resurrected (yet).
Disclaimer #3: No, John MacArthur has not become charismatic (yet).
Disclaimer #4: No theologians were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!

Other Disclaimers
This is not an endorsement of rock music, "Christian" rock music, Roger Olson's theology, the "arminocalvinist" spectrum, infant baptism, men wearing wigs, contextualized Christianity, secular Christmas music, men's jewelry, bandanas, mega churches, or smoke machines. I do, however, endorse disco balls and sequin covered guitars.

Also, just to reassure his critics, Piper's antics in this video are not taken from actual footage.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Really Like This Blog!

No, not this blog . . . THIS BLOG: Theology Thoughts by Phil Comer. I find a lot of inspiration there. Recently Phil has posted about Christ as the center of Scripture and History, and he has offered a detailed review of the new Narnia movie, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

While I'm at it, I'll offer a few other shameless endorsements . . . here are some other blogs I really like (in no particular order).

Who Am I? from my like-minded friend, Barry Wallace, one who is always provoking thought and is always thoughtful.

Scripture Zealot . . . how could I not like a person who is zealous about God's Word? Besides being about Scripture, Jeff's blog produces some interesting interaction and response.

Abundant Life Now, written by my new friend, author and speaker Bob Russell (check out the books!)

Analogical Thoughts, by Reformed philosopher James Anderson. He doesn't post very often, but the posts are worth waiting for.

1/4 Bushel - I'm not Complete Yet, by Rob Peck, the man from the Adirondacks who loves Jesus and enjoys good theology - and isn't afraid to wrestle with the difficulties.

The Verticall, an oasis of refreshment from pastor and musician, "the BlaineMonster." Always a great read, and always full of Gospel grace and hope.

Isaac's Musings, by my friend Isaac Nolden, who works for the Coast Guard and just moved to Alaska. He's a fantastic musician, a fine thinker, and he just got married (congratulations are in order!). He also takes great photos.

Uniting Church and Home, by Eric Wallace. I love every word I've read from this Gospel-centered leader and advocate of household based ministry. I only wish he would post more of his great articles!

For some reason, I have a peculiar appreciation for Eddie Eddings and his Calvinistic Cartoons. Go here for great laughs (and great theology, which is a strange combination - or is it?)

There are others. In fact, I could go on and on, but I'll leave it there for now. Blessings, friends!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Isaiah 53:4 - Stricken of God

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.

In verse 3, we found the Savior acquainted with grief.
Here we find that it is our grief He bears.
In verse 3, we found the Savior a man of sorrows.
Here we find that it is our sorrows He carries.
In verse 3, we found that we did not take account of the Savior.
Here, we find that our account of Him was misguided.

  • "Surely" is the Hebrew word AKEN, אָכֵן, meaning "truly," or, "in reality," or, "but in truth," denoting a strong contrast between this verse and the one before it.
  • "He Himself" is the emphatic Hebrew demontrative pronoun, HUW', הוּא, showing that He personally and voluntarily lifted our burdens when we were not even aware.
  • "We ourselves" is the emphatic Hebrew personal pronoun, 'ANACHNUW, אֲנַחְנוּ, indicating that our own judgment was far from the reality, and when we finally took notice of Him we drew the wrong conclusions. The cross forces us to take account of Jesus Christ - yet we must not only notice Him, but also discover what His work means.
Why Does He Suffer So?

The common belief in Jesus' day was that a person suffered as a result of his own sin or that of his parents. Suffering was not voluntary, it was not in behalf of others, and it was considered to be a well deserved punishment meted out by God against evildoers. Apparently the book of Job had little effect on the thinking of first century Israel.

While He suffered, the people looked at Jesus and concluded He was being punished by God. This far along they were correct. But they failed to apprehend the reasons: that He suffered voluntarily, bearing only the wrath that we deserved for our sins. Christ's motivation and the motivation of the Father were both misinterpreted because the underlying cause of His suffering was not seen for what it was: a substitution for us, due to His representation of us, resulting in an imputation of sin from us . . . with the attending wrath of God pressing down heavily upon Him.

The sorrow and grief of sin are infinitely heavy. Can you feel them in your soul? Have guilt, condemnation and the wounding of conscience trampled you down into the miry mud bog of despair? Are you drowning in the turmoil of a heart that is deeply aware of its sinfulness? It may seem that way at times, but you and I barely know the measure of the weight of our guiltiness. Only Jesus truly knows it. Our finite emotions can hardly sense the true depth of our trouble. Yes, it's worse than you think. Our sin-warped minds are hard pressed to formulate the real implications of our revolt against Almighty Goodness. We have only a slight perception of these things . . . and even what we have is nearly unbearable to our fragile spirits.

Moreover, our perception of our own sin is stretched out over a lifetime and revealed progressively. Jesus carried it all - yours, mine, the whole world's - concentrated together in one small bit of time and space, a mere 3 hours! Imagine the weight He felt in His soul. No wonder His sweat was like great drops of blood in the hours leading to this event, and He uttered the most grave self-assessment: "I am deeply sorrowful to the point of death."

The regenerated righteous are peculiarly aware of their own unworthiness and misery. They feel most pressed down by their corruptions. However, far from leading to hopelessness, this terrible reality causes more dependence on Christ, more humility, more grace, more fleeing to the Word of God for refuge, more pleadings and prayers for deliverance, more sensitivity to the needs of others, more intercession for those who are not blessed with such vast spiritual resources - and all of this builds a sturdiness of character in which hope solidifies us and leads us to an inexplicable joy, peace, and rest! Just as sin is worse than you think, grace is stronger than you realize.

When it comes to our sorrows and griefs, Jesus is the great Carrier. We can - we must - cast our burdens upon Him. We must always remember that those discomfiting revelations of our depravity are but the residual shadows of a condemnation which has already passed. It has been borne by another in our place.

Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden upon the LORD and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.

For those who will not cast their burden of sin upon the Lord Christ, the crushing guilt that is felt now is only a shadow of what is to come. But for those who turn to God in faith, trusting Him to bear away their sin, the feeling of condemnation is temporary and ultimately inconsistent with the truth of full redemption in Christ. 

So, in the objective sense, our sin and guilt have already been carried away to judgment. We find nothing but mercy from our self-propitiating Father. But in the subjective sense, we wrestle with sin and guilt and must daily apply the truth of the Gospel against its powerful advances. We also receive God's loving, fatherly discipline, His temporary judgments that are redemptive and spur us on to growth in Christ. While we await the final perfecting of our minds and the redemption of our mortal bodies at the coming of the Lord, we struggle through the process of sanctification. We're on the way to our promised glorification in Christ, but we haven't reached it yet. However, it is so sure and certain that the apostle writes of it as if it is finished: "... whom He justified, He also glorified." (Romans 8:30). He also says we are presently seated with Christ in the heavenlies, though this does not yet appear in our experience. We live between the cross, with its "finished" judgment against our sin, and the ultimate fulfillment of the redemption purchased there. In such a state, we are both wretched justified sinners needing further sanctification, and redeemed saints in the process of being glorified, being made holy, and being changed into His image. This situation itself is only temporary, as we move onward to the culmination in our own experience of God's eternally finished work. It is so finished, and so guaranteed, that we are even now called "holy" and "perfect" and "glorified" in Christ.

He Willingly Bore the Injustice of Bearing our Just Condemnation

"Stricken," "Smitten," and "Afflicted" are each passive participles in the Hebrew, perhaps showing our misapprehension in thinking that Christ was the unwilling recipient of divine justice.

In reality, He was bearing our sins freely and without coercion. He was not merely being acted upon, but was actively and purposefully submitting to the will of the Father. He certainly did not crucify Himself, but He allowed Himself to be crucified. He did not act to stop it, though His agony would have ended with a mere word from His lips or an unuttered prayer for deliverance. And while we stood looking on and misjudged the reasons for His death, He did what we should have been doing: He asked the Father, "My God, My God, WHY . . ." The simple, child-like faith we should have expressed was instead expressed by Him in fulfillment of Job's prophecy: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him!" The answer to His question is this: He was forsaken because we are desperate, depraved sinners - and God loves us too much to give us the justice we deserve but cannot bear - so He absorbed His own wrath. And the cross shows us that even for God, this is (to use the human expression) "more easily said than done." There was a price to pay for our lawlessness - a price so costly that God's spoken Word alone was not enough to remedy it - though a Word would have been sufficient to seal our deserved condemnation. For mercy to appear, there needed to be a divine act of bearing sin, and an obedience that answered our disobedience, for the sake of His pure justice. Christ acted, Christ obeyed, and Christ guaranteed the purchase.

The justice He received was the just wrath we were due. There was no sin in Him to elicit any divine judgment or wrath against Him. The inherent virtue in Him merited only praise. He was falsely condemned by the same humanity whose crimes He bore, while at the same time He was rightly condemned by the Father because He stood as our representative receiving the penalty for our crimes. His sufferings were vicarious and substitutionary - in our place.

When you face the darkness of your heart, do you remember His sufferings on behalf of that heart? When you fall into sin, do you believe He suffered to redeem you from that very sin? When you are victorious over temptation, do you thank Him for purchasing that victory? Do you recognize that your obedience in faith is impossible apart from His sacrifice? The cross (including the resurrection) is the flaming core of our faith and the center point of our sanctification. As we live before the cross, bear the cross, gaze upon the cross, meditate upon the cross, sing of the cross, embrace the cross, and love the cross, we grow in newness of life by the same power that raised Him from the dead.

Dear friend, let us pray thus: may the cross of Christ - and the Christ of the cross - ever captivate our hearts!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Infant Baptism by Immersion

Last night I was discussing the subject of baptism with a Presbyterian friend. I was just listening carefully and not arguing against his paedobaptist ideas, when another friend came over and started to present believers' baptism with Scriptural counter arguments. An informal debate was quickly under way. After a few minutes I wanted to lighten the mood, so I stopped them both and said, "Here's the perfect solution: infant baptism by immersion!" After a slight pause, everyone erupted with laughter. It's the perfect way to end every baptism debate, and until this morning I thought it was a position no one held.

Just before this discussion took place, I had received and published a comment regarding the last post (the one about the Coptic Orthodox mega church that meets in a cave). The commenter asked why I take issue with Coptic Orthodox theology and tradition. This morning, while searching for a documentary I had seen and wanted to refer to, I found the short video below. It is a good short explanation of the Coptic Orthodox Church - and it includes footage of some infant baptisms . . . BY IMMERSION! This is not a joke, and it's actually thrilling to see, even though I'm not real kosher with baptizing babies. [NOTE: no babies were harmed in the making of this documentary]

In truth, infant baptism is perhaps the least of the issues dividing Biblical Protestantism from the Eastern Orthodox Church (in fact, our Reformed paedobaptist friends would not even disagree with it in principle). And while I don't know how to square my Biblical convictions with the theology of the Cave Church, I believe there are true believers there. Perhaps thousands of them. God knows. Christ saves sinners who trust in Him, even in an environment of unbiblical tradition, and even under egregiously poor theology (this is not meant as a harsh judgment on Eastern Orthodox theology, but as exaltation of the saving grace of our God - who is their God, too). While we can (and should) disagree with some teachings or practices, we can't stop Him from saving. And why would we want to? So, let us be ruggedly Biblical as we relentlessly strive to conform our minds to the Truth of God's Word. By all means, we must tenaciously fight off major and minor heresy at every turn. But at the same time, let's be generous and gracious toward those who disagree with us. It would be tragic to condemn those God has justified. After all, our Lord teaches us that we will be judged by our own standard of measure.

It's hard to evaluate who is and isn't a true believer, and it's difficult to know how much error can be present in a saved individual. More soberingly, it's impossible even to discern how much error we still have in ourselves! I haven't figured it all out (and you haven't, either). So we must avoid the trap of setting ourselves up as judges, and we must not close the fence in so tightly that we fail to see God's real work among real Christians in other branches of the visible Church. I welcome any comments on this, agreeing or disagreeing.

If you were a true believer living in Cairo, Egypt, how many churches would you have to choose from? You might well be attending Sunday services at the Cave Church with your arms raised and lovely tears streaming down your face . . . mixed with swirling clouds of incense before mosaic tile portraits of venerated old saints.

The infant immersion baptisms are at 4:50-5:20 on the video. You gotta see it to believe it.

Documentary on the Coptic Orthodox Church

Nice music, too. Perfect for the Christmas season!

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Mega Church that Meets in a Cave

My jaw dropped when I saw this. Yours probably will, too.

For your consideration, I submit . . . the story of the Cave Church. The first video is approximately 9 minutes, the second is less than five minutes.

Part 1

Part 2

Learn more at, especially via the links on this page.

I found this story both impressive and disturbing.

Missionary zeal
Visionary leadership
Showing mercy to the poor
Practical evangelistic outreach
The people point to Jesus
They testify of repentance and having their sins forgiven
All of this happening in an Arab country
Charismatic element

Coptic Orthodox theology and traditions
Possible "personality cult" tendency
Charismatic element

So, what do you think?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ambrose on Revelation and Mystery

From Augustine's mentor, Ambrose of Milan:

“The things which God wishes to be hidden are not to be examined; and the things which He has made manifest are not to be rejected, lest we as ingrates be improperly curious toward the former and damnably ungrateful for the latter.” 
De Vocatione Gentium, Bk. 17 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 16 - Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is held in high regard as one of the most profound and influential thinkers in the history of the Church. In 421 AD,  he wrote a short handbook on the Christian faith called Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love. The book is a commentary on the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer, and contains some of Augustine's most foundational theological convictions in concentrated and abbreviated form. The excerpt below shows Augustine's incipient Calvinism and paradoxical compatibilism, as expressed in Chapter IX of the Enchiridion. In the midst of these thoughts, as he wrestles with the twin realities of God's sovereign mercy and man's responsibility to believe, we find Augustine almost unable to say anything beyond the words of Scripture themselves. He repeats the same Scripture verse 6 times in an attempt to explain the inexplicable! This cautious, God-honoring Biblicism is commendable, and it deserves a t-shirt.
But now, can that part of the human race to whom God hath promised deliverance and a place in the eternal kingdom be restored through the merits of their own works? Of course not! For what good works could a lost soul do except as he had been rescued from his lostness? Could he do this by the determination of his free will? Of course not! For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time. For as a man who kills himself is still alive when he kills himself, but having killed himself is then no longer alive and cannot resuscitate himself after he has destroyed his own life - so also sin which arises from the action of the free will turns out to be victor over the will and the free will is destroyed. "By whom a man is overcome, to this one he then is bound as slave." This is clearly the judgment of the apostle Peter. And since it is true, I ask you what kind of liberty can one have who is bound as a slave except the liberty that loves to sin?

He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin. But thereafter he will not be free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness. This, then is true liberty: the joy that comes in doing what is right. At the same time, it is also devoted service in obedience to righteous precept.

But how would a man, bound and sold, get back his liberty to do good, unless he could regain it from Him whose voice saith, "If the Son shall make you free, then you will be free indeed"? But before this process begins in man, could anyone glory in the good works as if they were acts of his free will, when he is not yet free to act rightly? He could do this only if, puffed up in proud vanity, he were merely boasting. This attitude is what the apostle was reproving when he said, "by grace you have been saved by faith."

And lest men should arrogate to themselves saving faith as their own work and not understand it as a divine gift, the same apostle who says somewhere else that he had "obtained mercy of the Lord to be trustworthy" makes here an additional comment: "And this is not of yourselves, rather it is a gift of God - not because of works either, lest any man should boast." But then, lest it be supposed that the faithful are lacking in good works, he added further, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God hath prepared beforehand for us to walk in them."

We are then truly free when God ordereth our lives, that is, formeth and createth us not as men - this he hath already done - but also as good men, which he is now doing by His grace, that we may indeed be new creatures in Christ Jesus. Accordingly, the prayer: "Create in me a clean heart, O God." This does not mean, as far as the natural human heart is concerned, that God hath not already created this.

Once again, lest anyone glory, if not in his own works, at least in the determination of his free will, as if some merit had originated from him and as if the freedom to do good works had been bestowed on him as a kind of reward, let him hear the same herald of grace, announcing: "For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do according to his good will." And, in another place: "It is not therefore a matter of man's willing, or of his running, but of God's showing mercy." Still, it is obvious that a man who is old enough to exercise his reason cannot believe, hope, or love unless he wills it, nor could he run for the prize of his high calling in God without a decision of his will. In what sense, therefore is it "not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," unless it be that "the will itself is prepared by the Lord," even as it is written? This saying, therefore, that "it is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," means that the action is from both, that is to say, from the will of man and from the mercy of God. Thus we accept the dictum, "It is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," as if it meant, "The will of man is not sufficient by itself unless there is also the mercy of God." By the same token, the mercy of God is not sufficient by itself unless there is also the will of man. But if we say rightly that "it is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," because the will of man alone is not enough, why, then, is not the contrary rightly said, "It is not a matter of God's showing mercy but of a man's willing," since the mercy of God by itself alone is not enough? Now, actually, no Christian would dare to say, "It is not a matter of God's showing mercy but of man's willing," lest he explicitly contradict the apostle. The conclusion remains, therefore, that this saying, "Not man's willing or running but God's showing mercy," is to be understood to mean that the whole process is credited to God, who both prepareth the will to receive divine aid and aideth the will which has been thus prepared.

For man's good will comes before many other gifts from God, but not all of them. One of the gifts it does not antedate is - just itself! Thus in the Sacred Eloquence we read both, "His mercy goes before me," and also, "His mercy shall follow me." It predisposes a man before he wills, to prompt his willing.
(Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, translated by Albert C. Outler, c. 2006 Relevant Media Group, pp. 38-42)

As I was beginning to set down a few comments on this ancient affirmation of theological paradox, I turned to the end notes and found this astute analysis from the translator, which says it better than I could:
From the days at Cassiciacum till the very end, Augustine toiled with the mystery of the primacy of God's grace and the reality of human freedom. Of two things he was unwaveringly sure, even though they involved him in a paradox and the appearance of confusion. The first is that God's grace is not only primary but also sufficient as the ground and source of human willing. And against the Pelagians and other detractors from grace, he did not hesitate to insist that grace is irresistible and inviolable. . . . But he never drew from this deterministic emphasis the conclusion that man is unfree and everywhere roundly rejects the not illogical corollary of his theonomism, that man's will counts for little or nothing except as passive agent of God's will. He insists on responsibility on man's part in responding to the initiatives of grace
(ibid. 74-75)
There you have it - an undeniably compatibilistic Augustine. Share this with your Arminian  and hyper-Calvinist friends, and invite them to embrace the beautiful balance which fully recognizes divine sovereignty and human responsibility with a modest, Biblical sensibility that acknowledges every good gift - including the gift of faith - as originating in God alone.

And, if you are a believer, thank God for giving you this good gift in Christ.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thank You for the Bitter Trials, They Work for My Good

Hezekiah's prayer after his recovery from imminent death is worth reflecting upon this Thanksgiving. Hezekiah thanked God for the bitter trial he suffered, and recognized that God had used it for his good. Sometimes we have plenty of prosperity and enjoyment to thank God for. At other times it seems we have only trouble, sorrow, and affliction. But we can thank God for these, as well, for they are His tools to make us in the image of His dear Son. The Son who suffered with us, and for us. 

I'll never forget the moment I recognized that my most bitter and vexing affliction - one which I had endured for several years in brokenhearted agony - was from God, for my good, and I thanked Him for it from my heart for the very first time. That day I thought the tears would never stop, but they were tears of inexplicable JOY! And I rested, finally, in His grace and sovereignty. At last, some words from Elisabeth Elliot that had previously lodged themselves in my heart became reality, something about acceptance being the way to peace. And I think Hezekiah would know very well what is meant by that.

Here is a portion of Hezekiah's grateful prayer . . .

Hezekiah's Prayer
Isaiah 38:15-20

What shall I say? For he has spoken to me,
and he himself has done it.
I walk slowly all my years
because of the bitterness of my soul.

[affliction comes from God, leading us to hear His voice, pause, and consider]

O Lord, by these things men live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh restore me to health and make me live!

[affliction can be life-giving, and God restores His beloved]

Behold, it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.

[affliction works for our good, and God lovingly saves us from destruction and sin]

For Sheol does not thank you;
death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope
for your faithfulness.

[gratitude, praise and hope are the good results of persevering under affliction]

The living, the living, he thanks you,
as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children
your faithfulness.

[giving thanks is a sign of life and a cross-generational language of faith]

The LORD will save me,
and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
at the house of the LORD.

[thanksgiving unites all gathered believers]

To augment this meditation, here is a great song of praise from Canadian singer/songwriter Steve Bell - stringed instruments and all. Have a wonderful, blessed, and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tell People Jesus Loves Them

Below is my response to a recent post at the Defending and Contending blog. The author admonishes us not to tell people Jesus loves them. Yes, you read that correctly. It's Calvinism gone bad, with a TULIP that is unfortunately planted in the shallow sand of human logic, arguing backwards from assumptions concerning the mystery of divine election and God's disposition toward the non-elect. (NOTE: upon further reflection, I think the sentiments may have been born more from a distaste for shallow, Gospel-deficient evangelism than an excessive dependence on human logic or a harsh brand of Calvinism. And I share the distaste.) The TULIP grows and shows its vibrant color best when it is cultivated in the life-giving ground of Revelation and Grace. God's disposition toward the reprobate is a topic that needs to be handled with special prudence and care (can you guess which Reformed theologian I am paraphrasing?). The thoughts below are not comprehensive, but they are an attempt to present the other side of the Biblical teaching that is sometimes ignored and must be brought back into the equation if we are to be Scripturally balanced.
Just a few things to consider here. I think we might be in danger of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bath water . . . (and I apologize in advance for this long comment – thanks for your patience).
First, it is true that glibly telling people Jesus loves them is not the same as preaching the Gospel. It is also true that the Law can be a great tool to lead people to Christ. And it is true that God does not love every person in a way that ultimately ends in his or her salvation. But the love of God for all of His creatures is evident in the fact that he bears patiently with the reprobate while meeting their needs Providentially, and in some sense desires their repentance. He certainly commands it (Acts 17:30) – even if He does not effect it.
Is it possible that there is a logical fallacy behind the conclusion that Jesus does not love all people? Why can’t there be a sense in which God loves and hates all sinners? Do we have to make the categories mutually exclusive? Can’t there be a sense in which God loves all people as His creatures, and another sense in which He hates all sinners as rebels against Him and destroyers of His work? I find this is the only way to reconcile all of the Biblical statements about God’s disposition toward sinners.
If God had only hatred for the reprobate, and no real love for them at all, would he not have great pleasure in their destruction? Yet He says He has NO PLEASURE in it, but rather would have pleasure in their repentance.
Ezekiel 18:23 “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
Ezekiel 33:11 “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
This expression of hypothetical pleasure on the part of God surely indicates love for those He calls “wicked.” Unmingled hatred would never invite an enemy to repentance and reconciliation. But God loves His enemies, and even blesses them (Mt. 5:44-45).
Consider this: we do not know whether Adam and Eve were ultimately saved. But God certainly loved them by pursuing them, calling to them, clothing them, giving them instructions and promises, granting them children, etc. They may both have been reprobate in the end (we don’t know), but that does not mean God couldn’t rightly claim to have loved them. Do we assume that because God showed love to them they must have been saved?
If God says He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” we ought to have no qualms about telling the entire world (all the progeny of Adam and Eve) that God loves them. And to be accurate we must not forget to mention the thrust of the rest of the chapter: the fact that God’s love will not prevent Him from finally condemning all those who do not respond to His love with repentance and trust in Christ. But by all means teach children to sing, “Jesus loves the little children.” Let us not fall into the same trap the disciples did, when they tried to push the children away from the Lord. Jesus didn’t say, “Let the elect children come.” He simply said, “Let the children come to Me.”
Sharing God’s love can be an important part of evangelism, as Paul noted it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4)
Reformed theologians have historically maintained a distinction between the general love of God and His effectual working of salvation in an individual’s life. God loves all sinners; He loves and justly judges some, while He loves and graciously saves others. But all of them have been sustained and blessed by Him all along the way. He takes pleasure in their repentance. He doesn’t delight in their destruction, though He delights in His justice when they do not repent.
So, I say we should tell the whole world about the love and judgment of God, and especially about the way both were demonstrated in the cross of Christ, to the glory of our great God and Savior. The Gospel isn’t “For God hated most of the people in the world . . .”
I agree that the angle of God opposing the proud is of great use in evangelism. This is a useful observation. But even here we must be careful, for what does His opposition say? It says, “Repent, or perish. Humble yourself, and receive grace!” If there was no love, there would be no such warning. If there was no love, there would be no confrontation. If there was no love at all, there would be no breath, no heartbeat, no patience, no warning, no command to repent, no Providential care.
Why do we share the Gospel in the first place? Because we love others, in obedience to God’s command. Is this love from ourselves only? That can hardly be. It is an expression of His love, even for those who turn away and go on hating Him.