Saturday, October 31, 2009

Should I Visit the 'Holy Land'?

This week I was interviewed by a Christian magazine about the year in college I spent studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel back in 1992-93. The discussion raises issues relevant for Christians who might, themselves, think one day of traveling to Israel.

EFCA Today: Tell me more about your major and why you picked it.

Andy: Six months after I became a Christian at 17, I sensed a distinct call toward pastoral ministry. Therefore, when I matriculated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (a very secular school), I thought, “What could I study which would best equip me for ministry?” The results were to focus on ancient, near eastern history and Hebrew. It was through the Hebrew Department that I discovered the opportunity to study in Jerusalem.

EFCA Today: What were you most looking forward to re the year abroad?

Andy: A combination of deepening my academic studies (Hebrew language – biblical and modern, archaeology, ancient history) and pursuing an ‘experience’ of the ‘Holy Land’.

EFCA Today: What was not as you expected it to be about that year?

Andy: Regarding the two anticipations cited above, the first one (academic) exceeded my expectations and deepened my own scholarship considerably. The second pursuit, though, is a different story. Within my first month in Jerusalem I became very disillusioned with what I found there as a Christian. The Christian presence in Israel seemed either wholly accommodating/idolizing of all things Jewish or ignored the Jewish population, seeking only to ‘use’ them and their land in order to create a kind of Zionistic Disney Land (i.e. the American and European Christian tourists in their buses or winding their way through the Old City in their matching tour hats, buying their olive wood cross souvenirs, taking pictures, walking ‘where Jesus walked’, enjoying the commercialism and individualistic narcissism of it all. Most Christians there failed to care for the Jews or Arabs as people, or seek to build relationships with them or even share the gospel with them. As one who was not a tourist but living in a state run university surrounded by Jews and Arabs, I saw the land and its people from a very different perspective.

Eventually, I realized that my initial approach to Israel (to have a ‘spiritual experience in the Holy Land’) was deeply colored by my Dispensational reading of Scripture which I’d inherited from my Schofield Reference Bible which exalts the Jews and the land of Israel in God’s economy. My years at TEDS after my year in Israel helped me understand the Bible and God’s plan described there as a single, cohesive whole which focused on Israel only for a time in the OT for certain gospel purposes to be carried out through them, but only as types and shadows which point to the ultimate chosen people (the redeemed from every tribe, language, people and nation – Rev. 5:9-10) and the ultimate Promised Land (heaven – Hebrews 3-4).

All that to say, that God used my year of Christian disillusionment in Israel as a means to help me regard the Jews and Israel more clearly and biblically. Though I do believe travel to Israel can be very helpful for our scholarship and in order to visually/geographically place the events of the Bible, I think much harm is done by continuing to see Palestine as ‘the Holy Land’ and regarding the Jews as the concessionaires of our spiritual Disney Land.

EFCA Today: What were the highlights of the year — even if only temporary ones — and in what lifelong ways were you affected/ changed?

Andy: I had many highlights academically, the most memorable doing archaeological research at Caesarea on Pontius Pilate’s promontory palace and giving a presentation on our findings in the ancient Roman theater in that city. Still, the greatest highlight was meeting other Christian students at the Hebrew U., forming them into a weekly small group and discipling one another. We were also taken-in by some Southern Baptist missionaries who ran a Christian bookstore who helped us form a home away from home and with whom we experienced some very rich Christian fellowship.

EFCA Today: What would you say to pastors and other Christian leaders (women as well as men) who are considering taking a trip to Israel? What surprising things would you have to say?

Andy: I would encourage any Christians to visit Israel if they have an interest in doing so. I would say, “Go in order to grow your knowledge of biblical geography, so you can better visualize much of the Bible as you read it.” But I would caution them to leave their expectations of a ‘spiritual experience’ of ‘walking where Jesus walked’ and thinking they’ll get closer to God because they’re in the ‘Holy Land’ – leave those expectations in the states before they board the plane. According to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit lives as truly in their hometown in New Jersey or Florida as He does in Israel because His habitation is now with His redeemed people, not any given ethnic people or place – see I Peter 2.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is Halloween a Gospel Issue?

Last week's message sought to draw a clear line between the gospel (the only ultimate litmus test for accepting or rejecting someone in the wider church) and the many secondary issues over which we have a host of convictions but which should never compel us to write off another believer.
Convictions of Christians regarding Halloween run the gamut. Is it a gospel issue or a secondary conviction issue? Rick Walston, President of Columbia Seminary, speaks clear-headedly to this often divisive issue in an article you can read here.

Why Focus On Men?

The longer I'm in church leadership, the more convinced I am that the lion's share of ministry focus needs to be directed toward men. With spiritually robust men, the women and children of the church will be taught well and will be protected, provided for and flourish. But when they're absent....

You cannot have a thriving church without a core of men who are true followers of Christ. If men are dead, the church is dead....

If we want to change the world, we must focus on men....

When men are absent and anemic the body withers....

The church and the Titanic have something in common: It's 'women and children first'. The great majority of ministry in Protestant churches is focused on children, next on women....

Men don't follow programs; they follow other men. A woman may choose a church because of the programs it offers, but a man is looking for another man he can follow.

- David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going To Church, pp. 8, 41, 43 & 59

Therefore, in 2010 I'm turning up the volume on equipping men to become biblically valiant leaders. Interested, guys? Ask me about it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

David's God-saturated Perspective

It is one thing to be told to become God-focused people, but usually more impactful is a living example. If you have any doubt that David was such a man, consider his prayer in Psalm 119:88, "In Your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of Your mouth."

What typically drives our prayers? Self-interest. And though John Piper in Desiring God effectively shows us that happiness in God is perfectly compatible with our own happiness, we have to admit that often our prayers fall short of that, boiling down to mere self-interest. Even our prayers for the lost, for many of us, often are not driven by God's glory in Christ's conquering grace but by the deep-seated feeling that if we pray for them, witness to them and lead them to Christ, God will be a bit more pleased with us. Much of our praying, if we're honest, is more about us than about God.

David's prayer in Psalm 119:88 stands out in stark contrast to that. He longs that God, in His love, would give him life. So far his prayer is unremarkable. I've witnessed the prayers of many people in hospitals who prayed desperately for their own lives. Why? Almost without exception for reasons like the following: Because they feared death. Because their families would miss them. Because they wanted to continue experiencing the joys of earthly life. These are natural prayers to pray when our lives are threatened. But David's prayer is supernatural: "In Your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of Your mouth." David wanted life for one reason: that he might have another day on earth in order to say 'no' to his fleshly longings and say 'yes' to pleasing God through obedience. Only one thing could have motivated such a prayer - the conviction that his joy in God's glory through his obedience outweighed his joy in anything else.

Ultimately, every decision we make today will be motivated by the expectation of joy. By God's grace, let's join David in the expectation that our joy will be most fully realized in God's pleasure, making us prayerfully happy to be alive simply so we might obey Him to His glory.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Calvin on Brilliant Unbelievers

We must carefully notice these two things - that a knowledge of all the sciences is mere smoke when the heavenly science of Christ is wanting; and man, with all his acuteness, is as stupid for obtaining of himself a knowledge of the mysteries of God, as an ass is unqualified for understanding musical harmonies.

- John Calvin, Commentary on I Corinthians, commenting on 1:20

Thursday, October 22, 2009

For Kids the Gospel is More Caught Than Taught

In Gospel-Powered Parenting William Farley writes, "If you ask parents what is the most important thing they can do to raise children who will follow Christ, some will mention adequate discipline, others enrollment in a Christian school, still others the importance of home-schooling or Bible reading. They rarely mention example. Yet example is the first principle of parenting. This should not surprise us. Parenting is about leadership, and example is the first principle of biblical leadership. When parents practice what they teach, God gives them moral authority in their childrens' eyes. All the teaching in the Bible starts with example."

Farley goes on to show that our marriages are the primary realm where our kids need to see the gospel modeled. He writes, "The message that our marriage preaches either repels or attracts our children. God wants your child to watch your marriage and think, 'I want a marriage like that, and I want the God that produced it.' Or, 'When I think of the beauty of the gospel, I think of my parents' marriage. I want to be a part of a church that is loved by God the way my dad loves my mother. I want to be part of a church that finds its joy in submitting to Christ as my mother joyfully submits to my father.'" (pp. 107 & 111)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Adopted For Life

One of the gospel themes we touched on last Sunday was our adoption into God's family through Christ by grace. In light of that, the actual adoption of orphans becomes for us not only a means to share God's love with those most in need in our world, it becomes a living parable of who we've become to the glory of God's grace.
Russell Moore, theology professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recented wrote a book on that theme called Adopted For Life. Whether you've recently adopted a child, are considering adoption or long to understand and more deeply embrace what it means to be a son or daughter of God adopted by His grace, I would strongly recommend Moore's book. You can hear him explain the purpose of his book here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Forget the Bad News

In his book Gospel-Powered Parenting, William Farley writes, "[God's] wrath introduces us to [His] grace." (p. 88) Think about that. Paul concurs in Romans 2:4 where he writes, "Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forebearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" It's not surprising that Paul's words are sandwiched between two sections in the letter (chs. 1 & 3) majoring on our sinfulness and desperate guilt before God. Paul's logic is clear: only when we first encounter the convicting nature of our sin, which warrants God's just wrath, are we moved to repent, thereby reaping the gracious benefits of forgiveness and salvation in Christ. God's wrath, which our sins deserve, surely is the front door leading us into His house of grace.

This reminds us just how important it is to share the 'bad news' of our unbelieving friends' sin with them before we share the good news of the gospel. Most of us are very willing to tell our unsaved friends that God loves them and Jesus died for them. Few of us, though, are as quick to tell them how needy they are for Christ because their sins are so great. Yet, without a clear, bibilcal declaration of the bad news, the good news will fall on deaf ears, for it will only confirm what they already believe: Of course God loves them since they aren't so bad after all.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Food for our souls

You may have noticed in recent weeks that our book table has moved into our new library on the west end of the fellowship hall. It is literally spilling over with a veritable feast for the soul. Let me highlight a few recent arrivals.

Big Thoughts For Little Thinkers

This is a series of four books which helps parents unveil for their children key doctrines of the Bible in a very engaging way. I have been struck by the profound God-centeredness of these little books. Thinking ahead, they would make perfect stocking stuffers for Christmas.

Doing Things Right In Matters of the Heart

Had this book been written when I was young, single and looking for my life-partner, it could have given me invaluable wisdom in the realm of love and courtship which I lacked. I don't know of a book on the topic of young love (or old love, for that matter) with a better grasp on how to relate to those of the opposite sex bibilcally, maturely, joyfully and God-glorifyingly.

Pleasing People

Do you care too much what others think of you? I do. Lou Priolo weilds biblical theology like a surgeon's scalpal to unmask our social idolatry and put us on a path to truly loving and blessing others with our highest affections set on Christ alone.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sanctification by Grace

Last Sunday I mentioned that one of the most common errors Christians make is approaching justification (at the beginning of the Christian life) largely by faith in Jesus and His grace, while approaching sanctification largely focused on us - our effort, discipline and will-power. But, as we discovered together, unless our sanctification flows from a heart swept up by Christ's grace, our behavior modification will be for naught.

This may be a new concept for many of us 21st century, American Christians, but it was the perspective preached from Puritan pulpits Sunday after Sunday in 17th century England. And no Puritan preacher more clearly proclaimed the 'holiness by grace' nature of sanctification than Walter Marshall, expressed in his masterful book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. 300 year old books can be heavy slogging. Thankfully, Marshall's book has been put into modern English by Bruce McRae. When it comes to the doctrine of sanctification, there is no book I'd more strongly recommend. You can read the original text online for free here, or purchase McRae's update here. To whet your appetite, consider the following quote where Marshall shows that obedience must be, first and last, a matter of the heart that's been captured and changed by the grace of the gospel:

"You cannot possibly keep the commands of God if you hate them! You cannot be indifferent in your heart to what the law requires of you if you are going to keep these commandments. Remember, the greatest of all the commandments is to love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength. This means that you love everything that is in him, you love his will, you love his ways, and you see him as the best thing in the world! Everything you do has to be driven by this kind of love for God. You have to delight to do the will of God. It must be sweeter than honey to you (Ps. 19:8). And, you must continually love, like, delight in, long for, thirst for and relish God for your entire life. All of your sinful lusts must be taken over by love to God and neighbor. You must fight against your sin, and hate it (Gal. 5:17, Ps. 36:4).

"This is quite different than the way people normally think of obedience. Most people think of true obedience as just a matter of pure duty. They think that obedience is like a salesman who sells his unpleasant goods in the market for money, or like a sick man loves his unpleasant medicine, or like a captive slave who works simply because he is afraid he will get something worse if he does not work. These are things you can do even if you do not want to do them, or even if you hate them. However, this is not true obedience to God. True obedience means you love to obey God!"

But how do we gain hearts which love to obey God? Marshall answers,

"You have to be totally assured that you are reconciled to God and accepted by him. You have to be absolutely sure that the chasm sin has caused between you and God has been completely filled, and that you are now totally under his love and favor."

- The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Walter Marshall, pp. 27 & 29

Monday, October 12, 2009


On certain occasions a pastor like myself will sit down after preaching and then be struck with a thought compelling him to say to himself, "I also wish I would have said that." For me, yesterday was one of those moments.

If you heard my sermon yesterday, you know I've begun a four week series on the biblical gospel. My purpose yesterday was two-fold: to define the nature of the gospel (Christ's choosing, saving, sanctifying and restoring grace given to us) and to argue that it and it alone is the primary theme of the Bible and must be our church's non-negotiable focus.

While preaching on the gospel-saturated nature of sanctification, I talked about how Christian parenting rises or falls based on whether we parent according to the Law (focused on behavior modification) or the gospel (focused on heart transformation). The thought which struck me after I finished preaching which I wish I would have said is this: If our true goal in parenting is gospel-saturated, grace-driven heart transformation (which will give rise to increasingly more holy choices in our children as a gracious by-product, but not as the primary goal), then the most fundamental question we as parents should be asking ourselves when our children are increasingly recalcitrant, rebellious and non-responsively sinful is this: "How can I make Christ and His grace more beautiful, glorious and compelling to my child?"

If Titus 2:11ff. is correct, that we are trained for sanctification primarily by God's grace in Christ, then the above question is the most important one any Christian parent can ask him/herself. Remember, a compliant child without a delight in Christ is a Pharisee in the making, but a child who, day by day, learns more and more to see and savor the beauty of the Savior and becomes increasingly desperate for His grace in light of his/her sin - despite the fact that they are not becoming the model child in behavior their proud parents secretly [or not so secretly] hope they'll become - is a monument to the gospel in the making. God did not entrust us with children in order to craft them into model Christian citizens whose behavior we would always be proud of. He entrusted us with children in order to help them become living testaments to His grace.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gospel-Powered Parenting

Few Christian parents want anything more than to raise their children to become Christ-loving, honorable and holy, Christian adults. Every expert seems to have his/her formula to make that happen, but with the great diversity of Christian parenting perspectives and agendas out there, how are believing parents to know where to put their energy and focus?

Because that's such an important question, I'm so grateful its answered by, perhaps, the most biblical parenting book on the market since Tedd Tripp's Shepherding a Child's Heart. The book is Gospel-Powered Parenting by William Farley. I have found Farley's book both convicting and inspiring - and, most of all, hopeful in Jesus.

This week in my message I'm going to talk about the crucial role which our parenting plays in our childrens' grasp of the gospel. If you have children, I would encourage you to build on what I'm going to say with Farley's in-depth exploration of why the only parenting which pleases God and truly helps our children is centered on the Cross.

You can read a more detailed review of Gospel-Powered Parenting here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Praying for the Blacks

Here's a note and request for prayer from Vince as they prepare to head out of Minot tomorrow:

Wow, moving day is here. It’s hard to believe. All the months of prayer and preparation are finally upon us and we officially close the North Dakota chapter of our lives and move onto the next. Today, and throughout the day, would you please pray for us?

1). Please pray that we would represent well the name of Christ with all our interactions today. Pray that as we interact with the movers, with our children, with one another, that we would be ambassadors for Christ and that others would see Him through the way we communicate, both verbally and non-verbally.

2). Pray for safe travels. The movers will pack up the truck today. We plan to clean the house, spend the night with some friends, and head out in the morning. Please pray for traveling mercies. Pray that as we shove 4 boys in car seats, 2 adults, toys, food, sleeping items, suitcases and an 80 pound dog into one minivan, that we would be overflowing with patience and kindness and that we would have safe travels, cherishing this time we have together as a family.

3). Praise God for bringing us to this point. It was a year ago that I traveled to St. Louis to go to a church planting conference with the Acts29 Network. It’s amazing how much has transpired in a year’s time. Praise God for His leading and for making His plan so evident. Praise God for the way He has provided. Praise God for His many mercies to us every day and throughout this process.

4). Pray for us as we are about to embark on a huge, and in many ways, unknown adventure. Up until today, just about everything we’ve worked on has looked forward to this transition. We are now officially starting down the path and are excited, nervous and overwhelmed all at once. Pray that we would keep Christ as our focus, grow in faith and love, learn more daily of what the grace of Christ means, extend to others the mercy God grants us, and allow our light to shine before men that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven. To God alone be all praise and glory!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Vince, preach the word

[An open letter to Pastor Vince Black]

Dear Vince,

As I sit at my computer this morning, just two days away from commissioning and sending you off to plant a church in Ft. Collins, Colorado, I think with thankful wonder at the grace God has given us all these past nearly five years. It was December 2004 that the Lord first brought you to our attention as a potential staff pastor here at Trinity. Since that time - with your help - we've become a church of small groups with robust, relational dicipleship, we've become a philosophically unified church without in-fighting and contentious factions, we've become a more globally minded church, eagerly sharing ourselves and our resources with some of the most impoverished and imperiled Christians in the world to help make them a missions movement to reach their own people, plant their own churches and reach beyond their borders with the gospel. Over the past five years you've grown into a very gifted preacher whose ministry we will miss sitting under.

I am grateful for these and many other ways in which God has used you to bless us as a church family. Far more, I am grateful for having been given the privilege of watching your commitment to your wife as you've nurtured her personally and spiritually. Truly, you are an example of a man who "washes [Kirsten] with the water of the Word (Eph. 5:26)." You are a man who ardently disciples his sons, showing and teaching them that "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (Pr. 9:10)." Your example of godliness - which has been a great gift -that I will miss most of all.

Vince, as you go, know that God has used you profoundly. But know that His use of you is only beginning. So, as you plant a church and begin a new life in Colorado, fix your attention on Paul's commission to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-2, "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching." Preach the Word, Vince. Live on it and live by it. Let God and His gospel be your joy and let heaven be your hope. The best is yet to come.

With love and friendship,