Friday, November 1, 2013

On the esotericism of reformed theology

A few weeks back, I had lunch with a brother who I had not seen in a long time. After covering good ground on life subjects, our conversation ended up reaching into matters of faith and theology. We ultimately came to discussing our thoughts on reformed doctrine: ecclesiology, the nature of Christ's atonement, and salvation. As we delved deeper into the theology, the more and more I grew wary of how esoteric some reformed terms are: Dispensationalism. Monergism. Eschatology. And the countless other words seminary students spout off in a small shedding of pride.

There's invariably a linguistic need to describe every distinct concept in Christian theology, as often times it helps us determine what's biblical and what's not. But as we use affixes and stems to construct our words, they get longer, more complicated, and ultimately reach a level of esotericism that can be perceived as horribly elitist, as if only the most biblically-trained theologians are worthy to understand them. That's why you'll never hear words like "traducianism" in the pew-- after all, what kind of lay congregation has any interest in hearing words more than three syllables long?

Much of this has led me to think about whether or not esoteric theology is beneficial for the church, or only for the inflated egos that dabble in it. To be sure, many complex terms refer to very simple literal concepts. Soteriology, for example, is nothing more than the study of Christ's salvation. Similarly, cessationism simply refers to the belief that the sign gifts of the apostolic age have ceased. There are, however, realms of theology where concepts are not as simple and incur much more speculation than biblical exegesis.

Take the debate of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, for example. While it, at its simplest, aims to discover how God logically decreed the order of predestination in relation to the fall of man, there has been far more enormous effort, not on properly exegeting biblical truth, but speculating as to the workings of the mind of God. While some will argue that it is a most important doctrinal debate, others may see it as a trivial and fruitless exercise, aimed only at attempting to comprehend the mysteries of God which have been deliberately withheld from us.

Ultimately, where do we draw the line between being learned scholars of God's word and being egotistic wordy theologians? An insightful post from Michigan pastor Bruce Buchanan addresses the point (in response to supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism):

Reformed Theology is "rigorous," that is, it presses the hard questions and seeks the clearest Scriptural answers, and receives that teaching submissively no matter how much the response challenges the natural (i.e. fallen) mind. Most people who reject, say, the doctrine of predestination don't do so because it isn't biblical (after all, the plain term is part of the text); but because they don't LIKE the facts or implications of the doctrine, and *voila* it must not be true (because, heaven knows if I don't LIKE something, it must not be so...). 
But RT in its truest form has always had sufficient room to admit the limits of theology. Just because a question can be raised, thought about in relation to biblical data, and an answer offered, does not mean that a black-and-white, "rigorous" answer is available. The answer given may be "tentative," and must be "tentative" perhaps forever. How unfortunate, therefore, if the "tentative" answer is turned into a test of orthodoxy, or hardens into the "correct" answer for a given "camp" within RT. This is the objection that I believe stands behind Dabney's wistful observation that the energy expended in fighting for the "truth" of the matter is largely futile. 
The infra/supra answers are essentially two ways of approaching the same question: one more "historical" (infralapsarian), the other more "logical" (supralapsarian). An argument over which of these is "better" isn't necessarily faulty, until it becomes abusive. If "logic" succeeds in marginalizing "history" as insignificant, it is a Pyrrhic victory of abstraction over creation. "History" has concrete lessons for airy constructs. If "history" marginalizes "logic," it likewise sacrifices the benefit that the Present or Future has in "informing," "judging," or "ordering" the Past. Both notions divided against one another are "linear" in their approach. But the subject with which both are interested (the mind of God) is not linear but whole (or omnidimensional), and defies human limits. 
God accommodates his revelation to man, and his creaturely limitations. Therefore, it is possible to build sound and reliable theological constructions from the materials of special revelation, linear concepts slowly building a "whole" edifice, or a "whole" revelation: "For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little," Is.28:10. This is the way we gain true understanding. 
But on some questions we are left (again, maybe everlastingly) with a "Heisenberg principle" or a "wave/particle conundrum" (see a physics textbook), but in the realm of theology. And why should this be "bad"? It imposes a lesson on us that we must stop at the bounds God sets for us, and not travel beyond them. In the end, the infra/supra debate ought to be a lesson in humility.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Why I'm a semi-cessationist

This past week, there's been a lot of buzz in the reformed community over Grace to You's Strange Fire conference. In short, Strange Fire was started by a number of reformed cessationists who aim to call out a lot of the heresy that takes place in the ongoing Charismatic movement. Before I delve into this any further, let me explain some terms critical to this discussion:

  • Cessionatism is the belief that supernatural spiritual gifts*, signs, wonders, healings, and miracles in the church have ceased and are no longer part of the growth of the church.
  • Continuationism is the belief that supernatural spiritual gifts*, signs, wonders, healings, and miracles are still administered and employed by the Holy Spirit for use within the church.

On both sides of this issue, there are respectable preachers, many of whom have had an impact on my life as a believer.  But as with many dichotomous debates of this nature, there's a lot of gray area about what even constitutes spiritual gifts, whether one can be both cessationist and continuationist, and so on.

It's important to get to the thrust of the conference's purpose and aim, since there are multiple parties seemingly involved here.  Those at Strange Fire, who are generally cessationists, are directing their message toward people in the Charismatic/prosperity gospel movement.  Specific examples include the Toronto Blessing, Vineyard Movement, Word of Faith, Bethel, IHOP, and countless other sub-movements which have promoted certain activities that have branded as spiritual gifts.

These activities, purportedly from the Holy Spirit, include tongues, holy laughter, manifestations of God (i.e., glory clouds), signs and wonders, healings, etc. The central characteristic of these activities is an emphasis on the spiritual experience of the believer rather than any kind of validation of Scripture.  The reason why I have been skeptical about these so-called "gifts" is because they are completely uncharacteristic of the true gifts described in the early apostolic age in Acts.

Fundamentally, the purpose of spiritual gifts is threefold (in a general sense): authenticate, edify, and evangelize:

  1. Prior to the completion of the biblical canon, spiritual gifts were bestowed upon the apostles to authenticate their teachings (i.e., prove that they were from God) since authoritative scripture on Christ's work was not yet available (Acts 4:16).
  2. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul makes clear that edification and building up of the church is the central aim of speaking in tongues, and that without interpretation of such tongues, edification is not possible.  We can apply this to all other spiritual gifts.
  3. Thirdly, the manifestation of wonders, signs, miracles, and gifts were employed to evangelize unbelievers, first Jews and then Gentiles.  This was first evident at Pentecost, when attendees heard the gospel in their own native tongues (Acts 2).

I'm a firm believer that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is a practical one.  But I don't see evidence of that in the Charismatic movements.  People convulsing on the floor, running up and down the aisles, speaking in gibberish, etc. neither authenticate, nor edify, nor evangelize.  Many of these experiences are branded as "personal," a slate of individual feelings and emotions that you can receive through union with the Holy Spirit.  But the Holy Spirit's ministry is anything but just personal**-- it is active and practical, one that seeks to grow the church through empowering believers to fulfill the Great Commission.  

It is also does not help the Charismatic movement that many of these activities are accompanied by very shaky theology.  The prosperity gospel is preached rampantly throughout many Charismatic congregations, delivering a message of worldly rewards in exchange for following God.  There have also been many other questionable doctrines taught, including the insufficiency of scripture, denial of Christ's deity, and modalism.

Heretical doctrine on top of false experiences branded as gifts from the Holy Spirit provide a lot of fodder for those at Strange Fire.  As such, there is a lot to rebuke for cessationists who feel convicted to call out a lot of what is going on in the Charismatic movement.  Unfortunately, some at Strange Fire have been prone to making sweeping generalizations, making it seem like all continuationists have been the target of Strange Fire's rebuke of Charismatics.

But we know that a continutionist is not the same thing as a Charismatic.  In fact, many sound reformed preachers who believe in continuationism would also balk at the heresies prevalent in Charismatic congregations.  Unfortunately, misunderstandings and bitter disputes over this doctrine have led to some thinking that Strange Fire is a battleground between cessationists and continuationists.

I believe that there can be healthy disagreement between the two camps, as there is no explicit decree in Scripture as to which is correct.  In 1 Corinthians 13:8, tongues, prophesy, and knowledge are described as partial things that will cease when the "perfect" comes.  What the "perfect" refers to is up for debate, but some believe that the perfect is referring to Christ or simply the completion of His word.  

To a degree, I hold with cessationists in that many of the spiritual signs, wonders, miracles, gifts that were the hallmark of the apostolic age have passed away.  Narrative and historical evidence support this-- many of the signs/healings were gone by the end of Acts and no such works were recorded by early Church fathers.  We can assume that this is because the threefold ministry of spiritual gifts* was largely replaced by the Bible and its sufficiency.

The reason why I'm a "semi"-cessationist is because I believe that God can wield the full power to employ such signs/wonders/gifts as might be needed through the preaching of the Gospel in the world.  In hard-to-reach places where ministry is difficult, the Holy Spirit may supernaturally work to achieve any one of the three general aims of His ministry.  I have heard of tongues (true tongues, i.e., speaking in another language not originally understood by the speaker) being used where linguistic barriers were present.  Nonetheless, I should add that these occurrences are very rare and only likely to occur where there is little to no provision of Scripture.

At any rate, it is crucial that believers understand and agree that the central tenets of Christian doctrine are not compromised.  It is because that this is happening in some Charismatic movements that I believe folks like John MacArthur and Steve Lawson are compelled to speak out.  But above all, our exaltation of Christ and honoring of Scripture matter more than anything else.

*When using the term "spiritual gifts," I'm almost always referring to the supernatural wonders that were bestowed upon the apostles.  I do believe that non-supernatural gifts, like the gift of preaching, mercy, mentoring, shepherding, etc. are all alive and well (as laid out in Romans 12, 1 Peter 4).

**The Holy Spirit is personal in the sense that each believer has His indwelling and that He works uniquely in each individual.  But the ultimate aim or output of that work is to fulfill the Great Commission.  In that sense, the ministry reaches far beyond each individual person.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


I don't think there's anything in my life that comes close to meriting or warranting the love that God deserves from me. This love should be absolutely unparalleled, but what's constant on my heart is that I have a very finite capacity to reciprocate Christ's holy and divine love (1 John 4:19). Yet I know that ultimate sanctification will only come at death, and until then, my flesh is still waging battle against the Spirit.

At the crux of it all, I still don't think I fully understand what total surrender means nor have I come close to achieving it in my life.  That in heeding Christ's call to discipleship, I am to deny myself, take up my cross, and become completely enslaved to Jesus and God's will for my life.  What I do understand is that this work is initiated, directed, and governed by the Holy Spirit, as He continues to regenerate holiness in every aspect of my life.

Some time ago, I spoke to our church's youth about how foundational bondslavery is in our relationship with Christ.  I've been sitting on a post expounding on that issue and hope to have it ready soon.  But in the meantime, I feel it necessary to implore every Bible-believing Christian to consider this question: is your life a total and complete act of surrender to the Lord?  Or is personal elevation still the centerpiece of your life?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A biblical understanding of "holy laughter" & the Charismatic movement

Recently, I've been engrossed in a massive online discussion between Charismatic and non-Charismatic Christians, who are at odds over whether or not current Charismatic movements and practices are biblical. One such practice that has come out of the neo-Charismatic movement of the 1990s is called "holy laughter," supposedly a fit of uncontrollable incited by the Holy Spirit.  You can find numerous videos of this purported holy laughter by searching for it online.

I don't want to get into the weeds of why I think general Charismatic practices are unbiblical.  For that, I would suggest two excellent books: Counterfeit Revival by Hank Hanegraaff and Charismatic Chaos by John MacArthur.  I do, however, want to pinpoint where I think biblical truth has been distorted and how manifestations of the Charismatic movement are inconsistent with everything we know about the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Understanding the "universality" of Christ's atonement

Perhaps one of the biggest debates within evangelical Christian circles is the attempt to understand who Christ died for-- more importantly, for whom does His atonement work?  This is often referred to as the universality of Christ's atonement, with Arminians generally prescribing to the view that it is unlimited, and that Jesus' sacrifice was made for all and is validated by those who come to accept Him, and with Calvinists, on the other hand, generally arguing that the atonement is limited to those who are of the predestined elect.

Firstly, I do believe that the atonement debate is probably one of the more esoteric disputes that have been espoused since Reformation times.  In other words, it's non-essential discourse to which we don't have a commandingly firm answer to, and ultimately a byproduct of a larger debate that questions the role of human responsibility in relation to God's sovereignty.  For more on this, I'd recommend John MacArthur's sermon, which exposits wonderfully on the matter.  I might feel compelled to write more about it down the road.  At any rate, what is essential is that all Christians agree that Christ's atonement is not universal (as in, literally everyone to have lived), but still limited to those who place their faith in Jesus as savior.  The question at hand deals with the extent of that limitation.

As someone who prescribes more to reformed theological views, I will not shy away from the opinion that Christ's atonement is indeed limited, in the sense that it is purposed specifically for the elect.  Arminians generally counter this view by citing extensively from the Gospel of John, where there are numerous verses that seem to express Christ's salvation as a provision for "all" or "the world" (John 1:29, John 3:16, John 12:32).

The question, of course, is: who is all?  As was already mentioned, all certainly does not refer to every human being who has lived, in the sense that all have been saved.  However, Arminians would argue that unlimited atonement does authorize Christ's sacrifice for every human being, and that it is up to each individual to choose Christ to complete salvation.  Nonetheless, this paradigm still considers "all" as interchangeable with "every human being" and thus still somewhat universalist.

Semantically, however, I do believe that when John refers to "all" or "the world," he is speaking not so much in such universalist tones, but more in the sense of "not just some (i.e., Israel)."  In other words, it's important to think about this in the context of the New Covenant, in which Paul declares that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  Paul, too, uses the word "all" but is referring specifically to Christians, who are no longer justified by a particular creed or race, as opposed to Jews or Israelites who were formerly bound by the nation-specific Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in their role as God's chosen people.

Of course, the Church is also "chosen" (1 Peter 2:9) but it's important to note that believers are not chosen by which nation or race they are born into, but rather whether or not they are justified by faith in Christ.  In that sense, we can say that Jesus did come to save all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The unsettling truth of papal infallibility

[Update: Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica has since corrected Pope Francis concerning his teachings on salvation.  Not good for affirming papal infallibility.]

Pope Francis made waves around the world today when he proclaimed that all who do good, even non-believing atheists, are redeemed.  At the risk of alienating some of my closest Catholic friends, I thought it prudent to point out how the Pope's comments in light of the dogma of papal infallibility should be deeply unsettling for any Christian-- Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox.

First, it's important to note the context and history of the dogma we call "papal infallibility."  Like many other Roman Catholic dogmas, it has no basis in the Bible, and thus has none of the authority that Scripture alone contains.  Papal infallibility, in essence, is any doctrine defined by the Pope in "his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians" which can be made under the possession of "infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Christ in us

Paul proclaims that the word of Christ should richly dwell within us.  John 1 says that the Word is God.  So God, Christ as deity Himself, is to "richly dwell within us."  It's not enough to be conformed to the image of Christ.  We must exhibit Christ himself.  In Colossians 3, Paul declares that Christ is all and in all, referring to believers, or the elect.

Through the Holy Spirit's regeneration, it is Christ Himself who is being brought to the forefront of our lives in that Jesus increases while we decrease (John 3:30).  How many times have we looked up to older, wiser, and more godly role models and have said, "I want to be like him or her."?  The truly godly, those who live a penitent life according to the transformation enabled by God's grace, will exhibit Christ.  As He imputes His righteousness to us, it is Jesus who we ultimately want to be like.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Perfection of all things

If there's one sobering conclusion I've come to in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, it's that our vision of a "happily ever after" society is far from reality and the truth of the world.  As much as I want tragedy, despair, murder, sickness, and so on, to disappear, I'm reminded by passages in scripture which tell us that we will have tribulation in the world (John 16:33).  It's as simple as that.

I once heard a pastor reminisce that there wasn't anyone who died in the 9/11 attacks who wasn't going to die eventually.  The same is true of Boston, of London, of Madrid, of Atlanta, of Oklahoma City, and of virtually every occurring death that we might consider "premature."  As a result, we often respond to sudden tragedies by saying things like "it was too soon" for someone to die, or that this person "had their whole lives ahead of them."

By that measure, the tragedy is completely ingrained in the fact that the deceased are no longer able to enjoy the "riches" of this life.  That this life is so good, it is devastating to think that they will miss out on it.  Under that purview, there is nothing good, nothing better, nothing perfect beyond this earthly life.  And for those who die apart from Christ, that is true.

But even Christians, who have assurance in Christ, tend to be equally shaken by tragedy as their non-Christian counterparts.  They, too, may lament the lives cut short.  But cut short from what?  Jesus commands us to refrain from storing treasures on earth because it is in the heavenly kingdom which endures (Matthew 6:19). In other words, our treasures, investments, livelihoods, etc. are to pass away (1 John 2:17), as they accompany our bodily death.

Ultimately, God makes all things perfect.  Through Christ's death and resurrection, we are sanctified and perfected.  And through His glorification, we too, will one day dwell in His glory (Romans 8:17).

Sunday, March 31, 2013

This Easter Sunday

Today we celebrate.  We celebrate victory over sin.  Over death.  Over hell.  We celebrate that Jesus, the only one to have lived in perfect righteousness, is risen and alive, sitting at the right hand of the Father in glory (Eph 1:19-21), and interceding for us sinners.  We celebrate that in Christ's resurrection, we, too, have the victory and may one day dwell in His glory (Eph 2:5-7).

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Purpose and Perfection

As I sat in a small room at the Northwest Ministry Conference waiting to hear about the manners and methods of ministry, I was asked one simple phrase about purpose-- if we are perfected and made righteous in death, why haven't we been called home immediately upon salvation?  Why are we still here?

In times of despair, it's easy to find yourself drawing nearer to God-- to feel a yearning for Christ's return and a stronger longing to leave this world.  And it is in those times that we feel absent of the Lord's purpose for us, even as we continue to live on earth.

But perfection in Christ's death and righteousness through His resurrection is not ours to keep.  1 Peter 2:9 makes the bold declaration of who we really are and what we are really meant to do:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Peter's allusions to a "chosen race" do not refer to the nation of Israel, but to all the elect who have been saved by Christ's grace, Jews and Gentiles alike.  He goes on to call us a "royal priesthood" under the advocacy of Christ, the High Priest (Hebrews 4 & 5), made possible by the tearing of the temple veil (Matthew 27:51).  And lastly, we are called a "people for God's own possession," a fitting declaration of our eternal purpose-- the glorification of our Lord Almighty.

Peter goes on to explain the means to achieve this purpose-- that we may "proclaim" Christ's excellencies and His light, in which we now dwell.  In other words, we have not yet been called home because we are tasked to show others to the priesthood, so that they too can be made perfect and righteous in Christ's death and resurrection.

For believers, how successful we are in achieving this purpose will be evaluated at Christ's judgment seat.  Jesus Himself revealed to us the Parable of the Talents, in which the wicked and lazy slave failed to invest in the master's talent, while the good and faithful slaves brought back a twofold yield in returns.

In the same way, we will be judged for how we invested in the priesthood.  Did we invest greatly, "proclaiming" His excellencies, and expanding the kingdom of priests?  Or did we simply fritter away our time and place in the priesthood, having nothing to show for before our Master?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Pray for your tithes

There seems to be general agreement that a good number to start tithing at is ten percent of your gross income.  Like any fixed arbitrary number, however, ten percent means different things to different people.  The general principle I like to follow when it comes to tithing is that you give until it hurts.  This is the effective embodiment of self-sacrifice, one of the tenets of Christian love (John 15:13 and Romans 12:1).

It must not be forgotten, however, that act of tithing can be corrupted if the motive behind the tithing is impure, or if the use of the tithes is not honorable to God.  After all, how many times have we heard of faith healers and ministers seeking love offerings, only to spend lavishly on themselves?

The important thing to keep in mind is that we must always ask for the Lord's blessing upon the contributions we give, to our churches, charities, loved ones, etc.  Before every tithe, we should ask Him to allow our offerings to be used in a manner that is glorifying to Him and His Kingdom.  Then can we feel at peace when dropping our checks in the offering bins.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Principles of Christian leadership

One of the hardest things I've found about serving in ministry is that on one hand, Christian leadership has human-centered expectations attached to it, and on the other, these expectations are totally in contradiction with the tenets of God-centered leadership.  To define a "leader" from the secular paradigm, there is the subject-- the one doing the leading, and the object-- those under subjugation of that leader, i.e., the follower or followers.

In the Biblical paradigm, however, there is only Creator and created-- the latter put wholly under the subjugation of the former, who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.  Thus, "leaders" in the church do not lead in the truest sense of the word, but are merely vessels who guide their peers to worship of their Creator.

Too often, those in ministry are predisposed to adopt leadership principles of a worldly sense, inviting the sin of pride and hypocrisy into their hearts.  Kathy Keller outlines the dangers of "faking it" in ministry over at TGC:  
And after a while you hardly even admit to yourself you're faking interest in the other person, faking enthusiasm for Christ and his gospel, faking your entire Christian life, because you don't even recall what it was like to have a vibrant relationship to God. You have become hollow. You may still look and sound good on the outside, but inside the reality of God's presence is gone.
Within the parameters of human-centered leadership, there are only two parties: a human leader, and a human follower, both of whom are sinners who need God's grace.

Leadership in the Biblical sense, on the other hand, is better thought of as guidance, a God-gifted ability for a select few to shepherd or tend to fellow Christians.  When Jesus asks Peter three times whether or not he loves Him (John 21), we see a moment not of rebuke, but of instruction, where Peter is to demonstrate his love for Jesus by dutifully caring for Christ's flock.  It is out of a love for Jesus in which Peter is called to leadership through herding (pomaine) and tending (boske) fellow believers.  What a change from the petty moments when Peter squabbled with his fellow disciples over who was the greatest (Luke 9:46)!

Like Peter, I've come to learn that leadership in the church is not about who is greatest or what he or she can do to lead a body of believers, but about humbling oneself before God, and being charged with loving the Lord first-- and only then is shepherding Jesus' flock possible.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What makes a Christ-centered fellowship?

Jesus issues a very basic refrain in Matthew 18:20: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”  The logical underpinning in Christ's statement is straightforward-- the physical gathering of a fellowship is always joined by His own presence, assuming fellowship is being done in His name.  The corollary then follows that no matter the numbers attending in a Christian gathering, worship to the Lord will be equally pleasant and equally sweet.

This doctrine is simple, so why is it so overlooked and misunderstood in the modern Church?  It's with increasing frequency you might hear statements like, "worship today was awesome; we had a great turnout!" or on the contrary, "worship felt kind of dead since so few showed up."

There is a fundamental problem with correlating a "worship experience" with numbers.  In reality, Jesus is the "worship experience."  The Bible tells us that He is our only path to salvation, and thus the only reason for enjoining with other Christians in fellowship (2 Corinthians 3:5).  Christ should be the pure and sole center of our worship within a gathering.  And to do that, only two are necessary, as long as they will to meet in His name.

After watching attendance of our college fellowship plummet over the course of two years on my watch as coordinator, my instinctive human reaction was initially to lament of failure and defeat.  As the success of any secular gathering is measured by its size and presence, I foolishly likened the fellowship to that, ultimately basing our gathering's premise on people, rather than God.

The hindsight narrative shows that I was searching for a people-centered fellowship that dethroned Christ from His righteous place in the center.  But the Bible tells us that we must be yearning for a Christ-centered fellowship (1 Corinthians 1:9), one that can be found simply by heeding His words in Matthew 18:20.