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    Entries in gospel (10)


    Are You Bored With Word and Sacrament?

    Michael Horton, in The Gospel Commission: Recovering God's Strategy for Making Disciples, writes:

    What are so many younger Christians reacting against that makes them long for genuine community of engaging, forgiving, and loving friendship?  What are the realities that provoke their indictment of hypocrisy, dogmatism, and inwardly focused lives and churches?  I believe at least part of the answer lies in the fact that many traditional and megachurch environments are bored or distracted form the gospel and its delivery through the ministry of Word and sacrament. [Empahsis mine.]

    Is Horton right?

    I have my own thoughts, but I'd like to hear yours first.


    True. But Wait... :: Book Review: Andrew Farley's The Naked Gospel

    Andrew Farley wants all to know that the good news is that Jesus has accomplished all things necessary for salvation.  You don't have to evangelize one more person to assure your standing with God.  You don't have to be consistent in prayer or Bible study, church attendance, or other religious activities to secure your eternal destiny.  You simply have to trust Jesus.

    Farley is a recovering legalist, someone who added a great deal to the simplicity of the gospel in order to prove his keep to the God that supposedly loves him.  In a story that has been told repeatedly with many small variations, during his high school years Farley was a popular, intelligent, athletic, and attractive young man who seemed to have everything going for him.  Yet, by his own recollection, all of those successes provided him with little sense of security, for he felt that in his spiritual life he was nothing but a failure.  He always felt as though he wasn't doing enough.  It wasn't until he discovered the heart of the gospel, a stripped down account of Christianity, "an intravenous shot that wasn't poisoned with religiosity," that he experienced freedom in Christ.  He discovered grace.

    The beauty and simplicity of this book is compelling.  Jesus plus nothing.  Those words are featured on the jacket, are prominent throughout the argument, and are the clear implication of Farley's presentation of the New Testament message.  In essence, those three words sum up the book from beginning to end.  And though many Christian preachers may betray that message with their actual presentation of what constitutes the Christian life, on the surface I believe that most in Christian circles would agree with Farley's message.  The question then becomes how Farley makes the case.  Is his argument convincing; his logic sound?  Is his exegesis true to the text on all occasions, or does he prooftext his argument?  In the words of Scripture, does Farley "rightly divide the word of truth?"

    In this regard, I submit that he does not.  It isn't that I disagree with the gospel of grace, or the magnitude of such a claim.  I disagree with Farley's use of the texts that underly his argument.  I disagree with Farley's assessment of "supercessionism" and his claim that he is most definitely not guilty of suggesting that his argument leads to such a conclusion.  I disagree with Farley's suggestion that the gospel of grace is as rare as he claims it is in Christian proclamation, and that the church today is wrought through with a rampant form of legalism that suffocates, misleads, and binds most Christians today to various forms of inaction, guilt, and works-righteousness.  I think that Farley's own testimony, which includes transparent accounts of his own struggles with guilt-ridden perfectionism and a need to prove his worth to God, is overextended in its application to most of Christendom.  Farley projects his story, in my opinion, too broadly.  And while there will be others in Christendom who resonate and identify with his testimony, I think the reality on the ground is much more complex.  His diagnosis of the malaise the church exhibits is too simplistic, focusing on one symptom of a much larger disease.

    In addition, throughout The Naked Gospel I found myself faced with eisegesis and straw-men arguments.  For example, very early in the book, Farley presents his readers with a quiz intended to expose forms of legalism that have been adopted in contemporary church practice.  The quiz itself is a farce, reducing such important ideas as repentance, confession, the Old covenant, Christian anthropology and sin, judgment, tithing, God's wrath, and imputed righteousness to simple statements, and then brushing them aside by saying that all of these things are forms of "religiosity" that the gospel has abolished.  Later, Farley tells a story of his encounter at a pastor's training event, and recounts an argument concerning the relevance of the Ten Commandments to those under the New Covenant with a group of other pastors.  In sum, Farley wins the argument by saying that because the pastors with whom he spoke said Sabbath observance was no longer mandatory, neither does the remainder of the Ten Commandments have any binding force for Christians today.  Farley lacks a sophisticated account of the relationship between the Old and New covenants.  As for eisegesis, I do not care to recount places where I would contend that Farley's interpretation of Scripture is problematic, but from my recollection my most serious concerns stemmed from his handling of Galatians, as well as his handling of Romans 7.

    I trust that Andrew Farley is a wonderful person.  He has a significant ministry in the city of Lubbock, and serves on the faculty of Texas Tech University.  He has a TV program that is an extension of his ministry as Pastor of Ecclesia: Church Without Religion.  He has a family, and I'm certain he is a loving person.  Though it is difficult to separate any assessment of a work with the person who created it, I believe I must state boldly that my review is not meant as a personal attack on Andrew Farley.  Yet I strongly disagree with his theology.  I found this book lacking in so many ways.  I found the biblical evidence lacking and even myopic, with too much focus on Hebrews and too little attention to how that book fits with the full scope of the canon.  I found the personal anecdotes tiresome, and overly sentimental.  I found the theology undergirding the doctrine of sanctification far too weak.  I also found his historical account of the early development of Christianity hollow, full of two-dimensional caricatures that opposed the "Jesus plus nothing" message, clinging to "religion," as though those who opposed early Christianity were a cast of cranks firmly committed to keeping the rules.  I think this is poor historiography, and therefore poor evangelical theology, which seeks to understand the texts as they were intended for their original audience.

    I am seldom this harsh when it comes to book reviews.  Most of what I choose to feature on my blog are works that I thoroughly enjoy.  But this book provides a sterling example of the trouble with much of contemporary theology.  This book is shallow, simplistic, at times theologically absurd, extremely selective in the application of the Bible, terribly neglectful of the significance of the Old Testament and Jesus's relationship to and significance for Israel, and, most regrettably, anemic concerning how Christians are sanctified by the work of Christ through his cross and resurrection.  For all of these reasons, I do not recommend this book.  Read something else.  There are plenty of other works that have developed a better account of the "Jesus plus nothing message."


    Revival and Renewal in the Evangelical Tradition :: What Does it Mean?

    Among my peers, the renewal of the church is of great concern.  Many of my friends want to see the church make a radical difference in our world, and because they sense a great disconnect between the people of God and their surrounding communities, they recognize there is a great deal of work to be done.  I've heard many of my friends bat around various ideas for the bringing of renewal and revival.  Some of them are doctrinal, some are programmatic, consisting of both the abstract and the concrete.  Renewal is the end to which my peers would like to see their efforts move, but the type of dynamic required, or how and when renewal has occurred throughout church history, has yet to find coherent expression within the context of a vision for how such renewal might take place within this generation.

    See more from Simon_K on Flickr!Even though I've heard my friends talk about their desire for renewal, I had not thought specifically of how and when renewal takes place until recent days.  In other words, I had failed to take into account "meta" level questions.  I have expressed the need for doctrinal coherence and faithfulness to essentials.  I've urged (and participated in) excellence in ministry, service, evangelism, and worship.  I've stressed the importance of living a virtous, Christ-like life.  But I haven't tied them all together, and considered, on the whole, how renewal and revival come about.

    Thankfully, I had a moment of clarity while reading.  It was John Stott who recently stoked my thinking toward revival within the context of evangelical belief and practice.  Stott, like many within the evangelical tradition, points out that revival and renewal occurs when the Spirit of God falls fresh on a body of people, with the result being conviction of sin, repentance, virtuous living (exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit), a binding cohesion within the fellowship, and undertaking initiatives of social concern, among others.  Renewal or revival, therefore, is something that is not wholly under human control, but is the outflow of something God has done and is doing.

    When we think of revival, oftentimes we have preconceived notions of exactly what must happen in order for the movement itself to be true.  Either it must be a well-coordinated campaign, or it must be something completely spontaneous and unplanned.  Either we must diligently work towards planning an "event" and mobilizing those who believe in Jesus to bring every person in the community under the tent, or we must be struck by the Spirit in the midst of an exuberant time of worship in a way that was almost completely and totally unforeseen.

    I would argue that both are right, and both are wrong.

    Two extremes should be carefully qualified and examined.  On the one hand, an excessive dependence on emotionalism and fostering a certain type of "experience "of the gospel of Jesus Christ does not necessarily indicate the presence of revival, and on the other hand, a programmatic approach to bringing about revival does not necessarily deliver the coming of a great awakening.  In other words, rolling in the aisles does not necessarily mean that the Spirit of God has descended afresh, nor does participation in a crusade or a formal process to evangelize the community.  While both of these may create conditions or foster space wherein "renewal" or "revival" might begin, they do not automatically result in a radically transformative movement within the people of God.  God cannot be manipulated or forced, rather, the Spirit blows where it wills.

    What I'm driving at here is simple: "renewal" or "revival" is not something that we create, but it is something that God sends.  However, this does not exclude the responsibility of Christian people to create space wherein renewal and revival can take place.  To cite an example from Tim Keller, our responsibility as the church is to prepare the altar, all the while longing that God would do something new.  When this occurs, it will not only be the case that non-Christian persons will come to see Jesus, but so will those who "believe," resulting in such radical transformation of life that the overall witness of the church will be undeniably strengthened.  Conversion will occur both inside and outside the church.

    For all my friends longing for renewal, it is time to begin a discussion that moves beyond a vague desire for the church to be made over and begin to examine, at length, the dynamics or conditions that must be present for renewal or revival to take place.  After doing so, we must then work to establish those conditions, and then place our full trust and reliance that the Holy Spirit will come and convert the faithful and unfaithful alike to faithful discipleship to Jesus, our Lord.  

    I'll confess that most of what I have heard concerning renewal and revival has been primarily concerned with universal principles or techniques that yield maximal organization excellence or effectiveness, and has had less to say concerning the spiritual and doctrinal dynamics that must be in play in order to create space for a dramatic movement that clearly has resulted from the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.  I'd like to see this conversation balanced, particularly within mainline denominations, and within the discourse of the local church of which I am part, which has a great deal of influence and has made much headway in working towards renewal.  That conversation must start somewhere, and I don't expect it to be exhausted here.  But I'm hoping that perhaps my thoughts will kindle a spark within the hearts of those who also would like to see the church renewed, and who know, deep down, that it will not only require the right technique, but also a depth of commitment to doctrinal truth, social concern, vibrant and passionate love of God, personal holiness, and warm welcome that both precedes and accompanies a dramatic movement of the gospel.

    Let's set the sails, and let the Spirit blow us where it wills.


    Brief Book Review :: Dwight J. Friesen's Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks

    In Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks Dwight J. Friesen explores the power of networks and the lessons the church can learn from observing and understanding how we are bound together through common relationships.

    This book did possess some strengths, among them a treatment of Trinitarian theology, an invitation to dialogue and an openness to critique, and the important recognition that the Kingdom of God possesses an environmental component that supports an "ecological" approach to leadership.  On this last point, Friesen's chapter on "Network Ecology" was quite good.  Likening the church to a natural ecosystem, Friesen explores how the openness of such systems, the need for diversity, and the necessity of death in such systems lead to overall flourishing.  One of the most powerful metaphors I've found for "Kingdom" among emerging leaders has been this very example.  Once a leader sees oneself as an ecologist or an environmentalist, it changes how one relates and navigates various relationships, casts vision, and clears ground for growth.  Of all the contributions in this book, I think this chapter is the most valuable.

    Most of the reviewers I have read have been positive, and because of this I'll offer a couple of words of critique.  Here are two of my points of contention.

    First, is Friesen's account of networks and their applicability to the church based on a gospel dynamic?  Within the first few sentences in his introduction, Friesen states "Many are wondering why so many churches and denominations are in decline when they are proclaiming the gospel," a statement which, prima facie is easily debatable and, indeed, on this very topic much ink has been spilled (with the rise of computing, when will this idiom change?).  After making such a bold assertion at the outset, I was hoping to hear more about what this gospel might be that is failing to gain a hearing despite its proclamation.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.  Friesen's articulation of the gospel is undergirded by the claim that in Jesus the fullness of life is found, and that the same fullness that is seen in Jesus can be realized in us.  Friesen states, "This is God's mission: that human beings like you and me would live as fully alive, fully networked human beings."

    That sounds nice.  But it needs more fullness.  More robustness.  And, it needs to be accompanied by the avenue through which such a life can re realized.  In other words, I need to know how to get plugged in to the with-God life.  I need a theology of cross and resurrection, a more detailed account of justification and sanctification.  I need something beyond a definition of life as "the relationship between chaos and order," something like "shalom," an ultimate vision of what a life of peace and reconciliation between human beings and between God might look like at the end of the ages.

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, I would think that Friesen's presentation presupposes that the reconciliation found in Christ brings about the creation of a community wherein humanity can flourish through connection.  As we come to know one another, love one another, serve one another, submit to one another, and live according to a collective vision of what constitutes new creation, the "good news" is imaged forth.  While I find such imagery compelling, as I've already stated, I find presentations like Friesen's as insufficient.  I appreciate that Friesen's "connected community" represents an embodied realization of the gospel.  But I think any such community which embodies the gospel must undergird those claims with a discourse, or a language, that goes beyond practices.  Proclamation and practice go hand in hand.  In that sense, I am "And'ing" two concepts that have often been featured as part of the division between traditional and emerging leaders.  At this point, I suspect Friesen would agree with my sentiment that proclamation or discourse is important, but I think I've made clear that I found his presentation leaning more in the other direction, and if his argument is to be strengthened a clearer and more robust articulation of the gospel is required.

    Secondly, I found that the overall idea--that networks define our life and are pivotal for the realization of the Kingdom--was not supported by consistently strong biblical and anecdotal support.  Concerning the former, like many emerging leaders Friesen relies on narratives from the Bible to illuminate his argument.  Most of these examples seemed supplemental, however, and not foundational for Friesen's account, and this is the root of my concern.  Concerning the latter, Friesen does relay a number of stories about his family, about his experiences as a church planter, and his experiences as a professor at a seminary, and his stories do relate to his central thesis, but do not add much to his argument.  

    Friesen's work here is interesting, though I wouldn't enthusiastically recommend it to friends and fellow church leaders.  I picked up a few tidbits here and there (to cite one example, I enjoyed his insights from Martin Buber's I And Thou), but finished unsatisfied for the reasons given above.  I would've liked to see more theological robustness, a clearer articulation of the gospel, and more practical and concrete examples of how his theory has been embodied by church leaders.  Philosophically, the account was fine, engaging, and compelling.  But to really draw me in, I need to see the theological import and warrant, and how these ideas move beyond our current reality to the transcendent.  I think Friesen's goal is to help us see the Kingdom as an eschatological community of connectedness, but he has to take us from here to there, and in order to do so his account must evidence more from the story of Scripture and historical theology.

    The good news, of course, is that Friesen can do so.  And if he doesn't take up the task, perhaps someone else will.  If so, in the end the church will be better off for it, maybe even more connected.


    Deep Church, Part 3 :: Gospel

    Without the gospel, Christianity is just one more system of morality or man-made religion.
    -Jim Belcher, Deep Church

    If there is one chapter in Deep Church I found the most compelling it was "Deep Gospel."  Why? The gospel is near and dear to my heart, and in the past few years some of my most exciting and revelatory moments have come during my investigations of the message Christians proclaim.  If you are going to lead people, you have to have a "gospel."  And the gospel becomes more compelling when we are able to proclaim a message that is robust, true, rooted in Jesus, eschatological, and naturally results in action.

    In Deep Church, Belcher's discussion focuses on the divide within the church today between those centering their doctrinal preaching on "the kingdom of God" and those centering on the doctrine of the atonement.  From personal experience, I can say that I heard a great deal about the atonement as I grew up, and very little on the kingdom.  My early understandings of Christianity focused a great deal on eternity.  Jesus paid for my sin on the cross, and through him I could gain access to heaven following my death.  Until then, I lived a moral life in order to honor him, and hopefully draw others into a relationship with Jesus.

    In "Deep Gospel," Belcher focuses on an important book as typical of the emerging church's protest, Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything.  I read this book when it was released.  It has been helpful for many people, offering many insights into Jesus' life and teaching for those unaccustomed to hearing about the kingdom of God.  But traditionalists have been troubled by what they have found in McLaren's argument.  Belcher summarizes traditionalists' objections this way:

    Brian's concern for the kingdom of God, they contend, does not bring balance to the church but fundamentally changes the Christian message.  Instead of hearing a call to make Jesus Lord as well as Savior, traditionalists detect a reduction of the full message of the gospel (i.e., justification, atonement, penal substitution) to the promotion of social justice and righteousness through our own efforts.

    Belcher asks if these critiques are warranted.  He concludes that they are, but not in a way your might expect.  Belcher believes that traditionalists are right to assert that McLaren's emphasis on the kingdom is reductionistic, but they fall into the same trap.  Traditionalists say that the gospel is about this (atonement), not that (kingdom).  Belcher quotes Darrell Guder and states that any reduction of the gospel is wrong.  McLaren has argued that an overemphasis on individual salvation has created a church of religious consumers, and Belcher agrees.  As a way forward, he refuses to accept any reduction, arguing that we need a robust gospel that encompasses both the kingdom and the atonement.  I think he is right.

    This is where Belcher says something that I think some of my friends will find disagreeable, while others will enthusiastically agree.  In attempting to resolve the tension he is feeling between Kingdom and atonement, Belcher visits with Richard Mouw.  When I've talked with friends about the kingdom and the atonement, there has been a great deal of stress on balance.  "We need to preach the kingdom, but we also need to preach justification.  Both are gospel, we simply need to emphasize both in equal amounts."  But Mouw disagrees.  He shares with Belcher that he thinks it is not a matter of balance, but order.  One flows from the other.  Belcher summarizes the conclusion of that conversation this way, "he was saying that penal atonement--that Christ died on the cross for us individually to satisfy the wrath of God toward sin--is the necessary foundation of salvation."

    Theologically, I agree.  But I'll add, quickly, that I think any preaching of the atonement must not only include penal substitutionary emphases, but others as well, including moral example, Christus victor, ransom, etc.

    How does this come to bear on Belcher's ministry?

    Along with the leadership of his church, Belcher stated their commitment to the gospel this way:

    The gospel is the center of all we do.  The "gospel" is the good news that through Jesus, the Messiah, the power of God's kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world.  Through the Savior God has established his reign.  When we believe and rely on Jesus' work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us.  We witness this radical new way of living by our renewed lives, beautiful community, social justice, and cultural transformation. This good news brings new life.  The gospel motivates, guides, and empowers every aspect of our living and worship.

    Belcher then goes on to state their church's four commitments: Gospel--Community--Mission--Shalom.  And the order is important.  They begin with the gospel, which fosters the community, drives the mission, and leads to the realization of God's Shalom.

    Christians have to announce a gospel.  They aren't just given the option.  Disciples of Jesus are commanded.  And we need to have our message right--rooted in the biblical story and in the history of Christian reflection.  This will include not only living a kingdom life, but announcing a particular reality that Jesus has accomplished through his cross.  It will be robust, and, as stated above, it "empowers every aspect of our living and worship."

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