City Church, The Gospel & the regrets of one pastor

church-peopleI had lunch with Fred Harrell a few days ago. Fred is the lead pastor of City Church.  Last year, City Church–an RCA congregation–took a significant step towards becoming an open and affirming community (read story here).  This sent shockwaves through our denomination. City Church is a flag ship church in our denomination, partnering with one of our seminaries and helping to plant churches around the United States. Up until this moment, I had always been a big fan of what they were doing. In response to their move of becoming welcoming and affirming, a large group of RCA pastors, including myself, wrote a public letter to City Church. This too sent shock waves around our denomination. I provided the leadership to bring the letter together and gather the signatures.  Though I still strongly disagree with what City Church did, I made a significant, sinful misstep that I personally asked Fred for forgiveness.

In the process of writing our response to City Church, I sent a draft to Fred to let him know what we planned on doing. Fred asked for a phone meeting to process this through relationship. I declined his offer. This was sin on my part. In retrospect, I should have entered into relationship with Fred and then decided on a next step. I told Fred, at our lunch, that I am sorry that I did not do this and asked for his forgiveness. He gladly gave it.

All that being said, this is what I am learning as I enter into my fifth decade of life:

  1. As Christians we are called to love one another. This is a command of Jesus. I have decided that he actually means it. It is not enough to be right; we must be kind. Personally, I have decided that when I must say the hard thing I must do everything in my power to do it lovingly in relationship.  I am always tempered in my response when I am responding to a friend I love. I believe this is a good thing. Also to be a person of love demands that I actually listen to others. To see things from their perspective. I think the church would be much kinder if we intentionally entered into this kind of relationship with one another especially with those who are different than us. I am trying hard to live this way.
  2. If I am right on issues of sexuality, I should be able to be a calm, non-anxious presence among those with whom I disagree. Many times, I have been motivated by fear. Fear makes me defensive. What I am learning is that if God is my father, I can be present in love, share my opinions graciously and not worry about outcomes. I am deciding, as much as I can, to live this way.
  3. I might be wrong on issues of sexuality and gender. Now, I do not believe I am wrong. Actually, I am the most conservative that I have ever been in my life. I am happily complementarian, pro-traditional marriage, and deeply reformed. These are not just intellectual positions for me but these realities have profoundly shaped my life as a follower of Jesus. And as I read the Scriptures and have experienced God in my life, I know these things to be true. But usually when you are wrong, you do not know it. This one idea–that I might be wrong–moves me into a place of humility. It keeps me open and curious.  it causes me to keep searching for the truth wherever it may lead. It keeps my pronouncements modest. It allows me to be a conversational partner and not a dictator. Personally, this seems to fit better with how Jesus has asked me to live.
  4. I personally don’t want to be at war with those with whom I disagree. In the next few years, the RCA is going to see many churches leave the denomination over gay marriage and gay ordination. This splitting can be done with guns drawn and bullets flying or it can be done in lament and love. I choose lament and love.

 

I am thankful for Fred. I disagree with him on this and other issues. But I am thankful that he was willing to be in relationship with me even when I didn’t want to be in relationship with him.  Thank you Fred for teaching me how to be a better follower of Jesus.

 

 

My Thoughts on the RCA Special Council on Human Sexuality

IMG_3198-crop_0Last week I joined 70 other RCA leaders from across the country and our denomination to seek a way forward even as many disagree, fundamentally, on the topic of same-sex relationships and the ordination for gay men and women. You can read the result of that gathering, here.

What I wanted to share was what I experienced and some of my conclusions based upon our gathering.

First, I have some dear friends who are on the opposite side of this conversation around same-sex activity and ordination. I disagree with them openly and strongly, and I love them dearly. I think highly of them. I am glad that I know them. One of the things that I have learned is that the conversation around same-sex relationships and ordination is not just an issue but about real people–people who love God and want to follow him. And my progressive friends are serious about their faith (even though I believe they are seriously wrong on this central gospel issue). I never want to forget this; they are seeking to be faithful. I personally think that if we lowered our biblical rhetoric and entered into relationships with those we disagree with, we might do more good than what we could accomplish through arguing. I am not saying we should not stand for what is right, but I am saying that when Jesus said love your enemies, he probably meant it.

Secondly, We are at a lamentable divide. Words like inclusion, gospel, salvation, marriage, purity and covenantal responsibility mean different things to traditionalists like me than they do to my progressive friends. I am not sure there is a way to stay together and be biblically faithful when our understanding of Christianity is so different. Many folks were earnest in such an attempt last week but I simply am not sure that it is possible. I am still willing to try because our covenant relationship called the RCA is not something to toss aside but I am just not sure. Departure for some seems inevitable.

Third, the recommendations that are going to General Synod from this council is good, serious work. It is the effort of men and women seeking to do the impossible: find a way forward on an issue in which so many strongly disagree . I am sad that I hear many of my friends lambast the work of this council. The real decision is up to General Synod, 2016 and the classes that make up our denomination. Take this and do gospel good but don’t disparage the good work of those who put a lot of effort to produce what is being presented.

Fourth, I love Tom Devries. He is a good man and an amazing leader. We need to pray for him. He too has an impossible job. I respect him more and more as I see him in action.

Finally, I am so thankful for Jesus. There is no one like him. He has been so good to me in my sexual brokenness. I have been transformed by his love! I believe with all my heart that he is the hope of the world for the LGBT community. So, I keep standing, proclaiming and living Jesus. I pray that you will do the same.

 

 

Should we seek the presence of God and what happens if we find it?

Presence+of+the+LordIf you have been around Calvary at all, you know that I often say something like this, “what we need, what we should yearn for is the presence of God in our lives. We ought to make finding the Lord’s presence a top priority because if the Lord shows up, everything changes”. This statement is born out of my own journey and experience.  It is when I have been in the presence of God that my life has dramatically changed.

Recently, I received this email question from a wonderful leader at Calvary about the language I use and asking for clarification.

Hi Pastor Ron,

I wanted to raise my hand in service today and ask a question 🙂 …can you elaborate on what you mean by “when God shows up”? I (we) might be looking for Him to show up in the wrong places.  At first I was viewing this statement in a literal sense; trusting and waiting for God to show up to settle the chaos in our lives. Now I’m wondering if you’re meaning a deeper/non tangible, level.

So, what do I mean when I say that we need God to show up? What is the presence of the Lord and why should we seek it? So this is my aim in this blog post: first, I want to prove that we need to make seeking the Lord a priority; secondly, I want to show the good that can come from it; and third, I want to show you what are the signs that God is drawing near you.  My aim is one:  to show how the presence of the Lord in your life changes everything.

You Are Commanded To Seek The Lord

There is no doubt that the bible wants us to seek his presence:

         Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! (1 Ch 16:11)
You have said, “Seek my face.”  My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Ps 27:8)
But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Dt 4:29)
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (La 3:25)
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Mt 6:33).
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:9–13)
So, based on these various biblical examples, I think you will agree with me that seeking the Lord is a priority.  I want to draw one logical conclusion from the scriptures above before I move on: these Scriptures above are to the people of God; this means that it must possible to be a follower of God and not live in the presence of God as described in these texts. This is an important point because these texts are not speaking about salvation. It is true that we are saved through the presence of the Lord but it is quite possible to be saved but not in the presence of the Lord in the way described above. The reason I want to point this out is because I want you to know two things:
  1. there is to be seeking as a Christian; salvation is not the end; it is just the beginning of a seeking-kind-of-life.
  2. there is a quality of life available to you that is eternal in quality.  But God doesn’t just give it to you. You must seek it.
Why Seeking The Lord is A Great Idea
I looked at the scriptures above and pulled the numerous reasons why the bible commends seeking the Lord. Consider these:
-If you want strength, seek his presence.
– If you want intimacy, seek his presence–“Seek my face” is a command to be in intimate communion with God.
-If you want to know the goodness of God, the Bible tells us to seek his face.
– If you need life change or circumstance change, seek his face–The kingdom of God that Jesus calls us to seek is the manifest (made real) reality of God among us.  The Kingdom of God is the goodness of God made real for his people (one just needs to read the gospel and read what happens wherever Jesus went–the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry are fed–this is the Kingdom of God.
So, seeking the Lord is a command and is the pathway to much good. One would be hard pressed to find something more good for a Christian than seeking the presence of God through Christ in one’s life.
But there is a final question, how do we know that the Lord has drawn near to us?
The Signs that God Has Drawn Near Us.
Ok, we know that the presence of God is something we are commanded to seek, and there is good in the seeking but how do we know that He is near us?  Below are some of the biblical and historical signs of the presence of God in your life (For more, consider reading Martin Lloyd’s book on Revivals):
  • A sense of your own sinfulness, God’s holiness, a desire for repentance and an experience Christ’s sweet mercy.  In John 16, Jesus says he will send the Spirit who will convict us of our sin and point us to Jesus (glorify him). This is not just a one time event at conversion but a way of life–a cruciform life. When God draws near, you realize that your most righteous deeds are, “as filthy rags” and you can do nothing to clean up the mess of your life. Then in the same breath you come to realize that Jesus alone is your hope and righteousness. It is not just an abstract understanding of atonement but an experience of it in one’s life. When this is happening, God is drawing near.
  • There will be power and you will have supernatural results in your life. Wherever the presence of God breaks through, supernatural things happen–healings, fear of the Lord, insight, amazing results, and the list could go on and on. The overwhelming testimony of Scriptures is that when God shows up things change.  People change; circumstances change; eternities change; things change! So, if amazing things are happening in your midst, God has drawn near.
  • Transformation. If your inner life begins to be transformed, if you begin to take on the character of Jesus’ life in your life, then God has drawn near.  The most profound mark of God’s nearness as it relates to our character is being a people of love. When you are more loving–a servant over a consumer–God has drawn near.
  • A season of dryness and trial. When Jesus was filled with God’s presence (the Holy Spirit) that very presence took him into the wilderness for a season of testing and trial…  It is where the enemy spoke. It was a season of weakness. Though Christ is unique and his victory secure, our times of trials and troubles are specifically allowed and designed by the Spirit so that we can grow and mature…  This is why Paul says we can rejoice in our trials in Romans 5 because the end of such suffering is our hope and joy. When trials are happening, God has drawn near.
  • Worship. When you want to make your life about his fame then God has drawn near. When you want to lay down your life so that His cause will be forwarded then God has drawn near.  Worship is the clearest sign of God’s nearness; it is the only response of the people of God when he draws near. If you ache to worship, then God has drawn near.

One final, important point: the presence of God is Not primarily a feeling. I think this is where we get confused. We are looking for some kind of emotional experience. Now, this might happen (it sometimes happened in the Bible) but this is really secondary to the signs I marked above.  Some people have emotional experiences and none of the above is evidenced…  This means whatever happened to them was not the presence of God drawing near. Other people have no emotional experience but these fruits of God’s presence are present…. This means that God has drawn near.

Conclusion With A Prayer

The presence of God is to be sought; there is good in it and the signs that God is near are obvious.

I hope this helps.

I guess I will close simply with a prayer. It is my prayer that we would seek the Lord. More than anything I want us to experience the life that comes from him alone.

This should be our aim, vocation and one desire as followers of Jesus. The good news in the midst of The Good News is that if we seek the Lord, he will reveal himself to us; then, everything will change.

 

 

An Invitation to Read the Bible Differently

This weekend I taught on why the Scriptures are central to the life of our church, Calvary. If you missed this weekend, I encourage you to listen to it: http://calvaryop.sermon.net/main/main/20585933 .

 

At the end of the sermon, I gave a model for reading the scriptures along with scriptures that I think should be memorized.   Both the list along with the model is modified from the teachings of Dallas Willard.  I hope it serves you as well as it has served me.

It is an invitation to read the bible differently.

1) Choose a few chunks of scripture to memorize.  Start with ones already familiar to you.  Here is a list that Dallas Willard thinks every Christian should memorize:

  • Psalm 23 & 27
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • Colossians 1 & 3
  • Romans 5, 8 & 12
  • Philippians 2

Don’t be intimated by the list.  Choose one scripture text to begin with (the Lord’s prayer is perfect, most of us know it!).  Don’t believe the lie that you can’t memorize scripture.  You can and it will change everything!

2) Once you have chosen your scripture text, and have memorized it (or even a part of it), take time during your day to consider the text.  Each time you do this, decide that this is going to be a holy encounter with God.  Certainly, it will be.

3) After you read a part of your memorized scripture, practice the following process:

a) Information: what did the author mean to say in that text.
b) Inspiration: imagine what your life would be like if this were true for you.
c) Affirmation: declare that what this text says is true for you.
d) Invocation (prayer): pray for the specific places in your life where you desire to see this scripture text come to life.
e) Watch & Wait: watch and see expectantly, throughout your day, God answering your prayers to see the text come alive.

Here is an example:

The text I chose for my example: “The Lord is my shepherd” (from Psalm 23; notice it is short but believe me, you could do this process on this one phrase all day!):

  • Information: David saw the God of the Universe as a personal being who took a personal interest in his life.  More than that, David saw God as someone who cared deeply for him…
  • Inspiration: How amazing it would be if I could live in the daily, moment by moment reality that the God of the universe in the person of Jesus cared for me like a shepherd (shepherds love their sheep, feed them, protect them, know them, take care of them, and is close to them!).
  • Affirmation: This must be true; it is the witness of scripture!  Jesus is my shepherd.
  • Invocation:  Lord, I desire to experience you as my shepherd today.  I want to know that you care for every aspect of my life.  Give me eyes to see and ears to hear.
  • Affirmation:  Now, I get to wait and see expectantly throughout my day the ways that God cares for me as a shepherd does his sheep.

Here is one tool that might help you meet the living Jesus.  Know this: Jesus deeply desires to meet you.  When he does, everything changes!

I invite you to read the bible differently.

Alcoholics Anonymous, the Church and the Hope of Transformation

IMG_0501I am a big fan of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Much of my transformation as a person has happened because of their simple program.  It has changed my life.  It can take the most broken, addicted person and help them find sobriety and wholeness.  The program is simply extraordinary.  I am an old sober alcoholic and I can tell you that when someone is in the bondage of alcoholism they are dangerous and destructive.  To “find” sobriety is a miracle.  Real sobriety is the total transformation of a person’s life–from arrogance, carnage and mess to humble, clean and able to live life rightly.  And here is the amazing thing: Alcoholics Anonymous is audacious enough to promise sobriety for nearly anyone who will work the program:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those too who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 55).

The reason I find this so interesting, convicting and provoking is that in many churches we would never dare to make such a claim (come to our church and whatever your issue, work ‘our program’, and your life can be radically transformed into the life of Christ in 12 steps); even if we did, I am not sure that many churches have actual pathways for that to happen for anyone who wants it.  And if we do have the pathways, I am not sure many churches actually are making large parts of their membership into people that look like Jesus.

If so, I would love to hear about it.

What we would constitute to be the program of the church–Sunday morning worship, devotional time and some serving–seems to leave many people’s lives untouched (many sociological studies have shown that American Christians have the same ethical behaviors as non-Christians). They might be saved for heaven but transformation seems to be a pipe dream.  How can this be?  Isn’t transformation the promise of the gospel?

2 Corinthians 5:17–Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Ezekiel 36:26–And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

Luke 6:43-45–“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Jeremiah 32:38-40–And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

1 Peter 1:16–Be holy as I am holy.

So this is my question…  How must a church structure itself, what practices must it implement so that its members actually look like Jesus?

One of the things that I am praying about, thinking about and dreaming about with the leadership team of Calvary (consistory) is how we could become a transformational community.  I dream of a church where people can come, and ‘work the program’, encountering the living Christ, and find themselves immersed into an eternal-kind-of-life.  A place where if we do our part, we find ourselves transformed.

 

Joy and Peace

I am someone that wants, in my actual experience, a life of joy and peace.  I must admit this is harder said than done.  Worry, guilt, the past, the present and the future all fight to fill my mind with a sense of worry and joylessness.  I know that I am not the only person who struggles in finding joy and peace.  So how do we enter into the life promised to us in the gospel?

I think there are three steps into joy and peace for the follower of Jesus:

Step #1: Think rightly
Here are some ideas that I try to keep before me all the time.  I find them so helpful in moving me into the reality of peace and joy.  Here is the basic truth of our existence: we feel and experience what we think upon.  And what we think upon is in our powers to control.  Want joy and peace?  Think about the right things!

From John Calvin:

The native tendency of the gospel is to give peace and calmness to the conscience, which otherwise would be tormented by distressing alarm.

From Henry Nouwen:

Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

From Dallas Willard:

We may allow joy to dissipate through looking backward at our sin and failures, or forward at what might happen to us, or inward at our struggles with work, responsibilities, temptations and deficiencies. But this means that we have placed our hope in the wrong thing, namely ourselves and we do not have to do this. It is our option to look to the greatness of God and what he will do in our lives.

From The Heidelberg Catechism Question 1 & 21:

Q&A 1
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death2—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10

Q&A 21
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture;1 it is also a wholehearted trust,2 which the Holy Spirit creates in me3 by the gospel,4 that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also,5 forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation.6 These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.

And of course from the Bible: Psalm 23, Romans 4-8, Ephesians 3, The Lord’s prayer.

Step #2 Community

We need people who actually know us.  Who we can confess sin to, we have a history with, can speak truth to us and encourage us to keep running the race.  Most of us fail in joy and peace because we have no one who can help pull of from the mire of doubt, confusion and darkness in our lives.  Community has been the greatest gift of God’s presence in my life these last many years.  From my wife to good friends, there is nothing like walking with other Christians that can remind me of the goodness of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this about this kind of community:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian community is a gift of grace. [… For it is there that we] meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.

Step # 3 The Activity of God

God wants you to have peace and joy more than you do.  These are the fruits of life in Him.  One of the great comforts of life is to know that God is working on our behalf to bring us into joy and peace.  It is good to know that this is not just our project.  So, let’s trust Him together to do what only He can do!

This is how I am learning to live moment by moment in joy and peace.  Would you add anything?

God, Eros, Sexuality, and Traditional Marriage

knowledge and Christian belief

I just finished reading, Knowledge and Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga.  It is a great book and one I will probably write a review for later on but wanted to pull out an idea that Plantinga touches upon that I think can help us understand the importance of traditional marriage.  The book which is about how Christianity has its roots in actual knowledge, unintentionally, gives a solid defense for marriage between a man and a woman.

In his book, Plantinga describes how eros is one way to understand our relationship with God and actually is the primary way the persons of the trinity interact.  Eros is a classical term describing one of the forms of love and is most simply defined as desire.  Usually, eros is used to describe sexual love between two persons.  Plantinga shows us eros is actually much more than sexual longing. If Plantinga is right then sexual longing, I think, is a signpost that points to what is happening in the cosmos–the eros of God.  If true, we begin to see why sexual ethics, for the follower of Jesus, are of extreme importance.

First, Plantinga shows us that eros finds its most realized expression in the trinity,

According to Jonathan Edwards, ‘The infinite happiness of the Father consists in the enjoyment of His Son.’  This presumably isn’t agape.  It doesn’t involve an element of mercy, as in his love for us.  It is, instead, a matter of God’s taking enormous pleasure, enjoyment, delight, happiness in the Son.

Desire and delight is one of the essential hallmarks of the trinitarian community.  It is a community of eros.  It is a community of joy!

Secondly, Plantinga believes God in His overflowing delight invites His people to encounter His eros,

The church is the bride of Christ, not his little sister.  Theses scriptural images imply that God isn’t impassive, and that his love for us is not exclusively agapeic.  They suggest that God’s love for his people involves an element of desire: he desires the right kind of response from us, and union with us, just as we desire union with him.

Do you see the progression?  The eros of the trinity overflows and becomes a place we are invited to.  God desires us and the imagery that the Scripture uses is the desire of a bridegroom for his bride.  This divine marriage and the eros in it is what life is all about!

And finally, Plantinga sees eros emanating from the bride for the bridegroom,

This love for God isn’t like, say, an inclination to spend the afternoon organizing your stamp collection.  It is longing, filled with desire and yearning; and it is physical as well as spiritual: ‘my body longs for you, my soul pants for you.’  Although eros is broader than sexual love, it is analogous to the latter.  There is a powerful desire for union with God, the oneness Christ refers to in John 17….

We desire to be one with the bridegroom, to be in union with Christ.  This is eros in action.

 

If Plantinga is right about eros both in the trinity and our life with God, then I think there are some conclusions we can make concerning our sexual nature, activity and relationships:

  • Sexual longing has meaning
    I would contend that eros is a signpost that points to God.  Our longings show us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  This is true of our sexual longings .  They show on a human level what is happening in the heavens.  This gives sexual activity much more meaning than just two people hooking up.
  • Sexuality must honor God
    It seems to follow that our sexual activity must have as its final aim the ability to point to that one marriage that will last for eternity.  If it does not do that, if it has lower purposes, then it does not honor God.  This is the reason that fornication, homosexual activity, porn and the like are wrong.  They don’t honor God because they do not point clearly to the eros of eternity.
  • God honoring eros is most clearly seen in traditional marriage
    There is eros between the bride of Christ and the bridegroom.  This is the delight of the heavens.  I would argue this is what all of life points to.  And I think this what our marriages points to and give us a taste of.  Traditional marriage is a shadow that points to that one marriage that is coming.  This is why changing the definition of marriage just won’t work.  To change the definition of marriage is to lose what it points to.
  • The beauty of family and how it points to the trinity
    Finally, I think this give us another reason to be thankful for the beauty of family–father, mother, and children–a circle of sufficiency.  Eros between Husband and wife that provides for their good.  In the midst of such love, a safe space is created for children to come, be safe, nurtured and grown.  It is in our family that we see what God is up to and just how good he is.  In a small way, I think this points back to the trinity.  It is a signpost of his goodness and life!

 

I would love to hear your comments.  What am I missing?  What has been your experience with eros?  Does it weird you out that God has eros for us?  Comment below

 

The Allure of Gentleness

 

Author Dallas Willard is one of evangelicalism’s most influential voices over the last quarter-century. Though he died nearly two years ago, a significant amount of his material is still being released. One such posthumously published book is The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, a compilation of presentations and writings on apologetics brought together by Willard’s daughter, Becky Willard Heatley. “Apologetics is serious work to help people—Christians and non-Christians—resolve issues of doubt,” Willard contends.

In The Allure of Gentleness he seeks to do this serious work and teach others how to do apologetics in the manner of Jesus. The book is helpful, unique, and sometimes theologically provocative; it is an important addition to the conversation of how we ought to contend for the faith in an increasingly doubt-filled world.

Overview of the Landscape

The Allure of Gentleness is divided into seven chapters. Chapter 1 begins with definitions of knowledge and truth, and the need for discipleship in apologetics; chapter 2 deals with doubt and the fundamental need for Christian apologetics to be more than a defense of right ideas; chapters 3 and 4 consider faith, reason, hell, a biblical approach to apologetics, and Willard’s rationale for a Creator; chapter 5 is his take on the God of the Bible and a case for the veracity of the Scriptures; chapter 6 covers his answers to the problem of pain and evil; and chapter 7 asserts the need for a personal, active relationship with God if our apologetic endeavors are to be effective.

Overall, Willard covers what anyone must if he is to effectively address the topic of apologetics. Occasionally, he takes unhelpful theological detours.

There is much to love about this book. One of Willard’s most helpful reminders is his assertion that serious thinking is necessary if we are to engage in effective apologetics. For many, both inside and outside the church, there is ea fear that thinking might knock down the walls of faith. Willard writes, “This reminds me of the definition of faith by Archie Bunker, a character on the 1970s TV show All in the Family: ‘It’s what you wouldn’t believe for all the world if it wasn’t in the Bible.’” Willard believes this type of shallow faith is destructive for rigorous Christianity. For him, serious thinking is the way forward:

You have the ability to reason—the ability to think—just like you have the ability to open this book and read it. Please forgive me, but we need to be unmistakably clear that apologetic work uses reason. We submit our reason to God to help people understand things that will increase and enlarge their faith.

Drawing from John Stott and Martin Lloyd-Jones, Willard artfully shows how reason and logic can help us see the truthfulness and reality of our Christian faith. Always the professor, Willard offers helpful examples of logic and deductive reasoning and demonstrates why Christianity is based on knowledge and not mere belief.

(To read more, click here.  This review was originally posted at The Gospel Coalition).

Answering Benjamin Corey’s Sincere Question!

Benjamin Corey is a blogger over at Patheos and writes some really interesting stuff.  He is always provocative but always kind. He is smart and someone who is sincerely seeking the truth.  I enjoy reading his stuff.  Last week he wrote an article titled, A Sincere Question For My Calvinist Friends.  I found that he framed the conversation of God’s sovereignty in a very unique way.  He seeks to show how double predestination would make God unworshipable.  At the end of the article, Corey writes this,

what if it’s the person you love most in all the world who God picked for hell? Presupposing your theology is correct, do you really think you could worship that God?

He is of course writing this to Calvinists.  Since I am one, I thought I would take a shot at answering his question.  Like Corey, I am hoping to find the truth and live in it.  I also want to help my Christian friends see the beauty and lovlieness of God.  So here is my shot at an answer:

I would suggest first of all that Corey’s questions are secondary to two larger questions:

  1. who is God
  2. what purposes did he create the world.

I think once you can answer these two questions, you can then answer Corey’s questions.

So who is God?

For the Calvinist, God is the most happy, the most competent, the least anxious and the most powerful person anywhere. This is His essence and who He has always been! John Piper (who I know you love Corey!) writes, “God has been supremely and eternally happy in the fellowship of the Trinity.” The reason Calvinists believe such a thing is that this is the steady proclamation of the Scriptures.  Even at the lowest point of history, the crucifixion of Jesus, we are told that it was all done for joy (Hebrews 12:2).  Calvinists also think God is competent.  The technical term for this is sovereign.  This simply means that what God wants to do He can do (Job 42:2).  Nothing can thwart His plans and purposes.  Calvinists would also say that God is eternally good and at His core is love (Psalm 136:1, 1 John 4:8).

This is what I propose is a decent, biblical definition of God: God is the most happy, the most good, the most competent and the most loving person anywhere.

I like my definition of who God is but I think we need something better.  Adam Clarke, by no means a Calvinist, but who still got some things right :), gave this as a definition of God:

God is the eternal, independent, and self-existent Being; the Being
whose purposes and actions spring from himself, without foreign
motive or influence; he who is absolute in dominion; the most pure
the most simple, the most spiritual of all essences; infinitely perfect;
and eternally self-sufficient, needing nothing that he has made; 
illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence
and indescribable in his essence; known fully only by himself, because an 
infinite mind can know itself.  In a word, a being, who from his infinite
goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, and right, and kind.

Clarke hits the mark!  This is the Calvinist view of who God is. I like this definition and so would Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc..  I wonder if you would agree with this?  How would you change this definition and still keep the biblical view of God?  This is the God that Calvinists have in their view when they speak of His sovereignty.

What purposes did God create the world?

Let me assert why I think God created the world: to show his goodness (glory/beauty) to free creatures that can decide to choose Him.  I admit that this does not sound thoroughly Calvinistic at first glance but let’s see if I can show you how this is a Calvinistic idea.  I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes right now and Calvin has lots to say about free will and sovereignty!  According to Calvin, the only time humanity had free will was before the original sin of Adam and Eve.  Before sin, man was truly free.  Free to follow God.  Free to do what he wanted.  And yes, free to sin.  This is the world as God created it.  This was the original design (Now I think this pre-sin life was marked by grace as well but that is another story).  Man was free and used that freedom to move away from God in rebellion.

It is here that sin entered the world.  For Calvin, sin severely diminished human freedom (he thought it totally obliterated free will in fact).  Because of sin, we are now slaves to sin.  Slavery by its very definition means a lack of freedom.  The disease of sin has ruined the will.  It can not choose good nor can it even want it nor would it want to.  This is the human dilemma!  So by the sin of one man, freedom was lost.  We can no longer choose Him (the point of creation remember).  We need help.

To free us (and our wills), Jesus came.  Salvation for sure justifies but it also makes us free people again.  I think one of the most powerful themes of the book of Romans is this idea of becoming people with free wills once again.  This is the good news of the gospel!  We can be free.  But there is a problem, if we are slaves to sin then we will need help to choose God and live for him.  This is what grace actually does.  Grace is, as Dallas Willard states, “the activity of God in our lives.”  It awakens us, forgives us, empowers us and finally it frees us to be free people.

Creation was a place where humans had free will and they could choose to follow God.  But they chose sin and lost their freedom.  God has sent His Son to justify and free His people.  It is through the Son and the grace He offers that we can choose God and live for Him.  And this is where it becomes amazing!  Through redemption it is better than it ever was before.  We now have the likeness of the Son and His freedom.  God gets to show His beauty off in ways that would never had been possible if sin never happened.  Good news!  This the story of the cosmos from Calvin’s perspective.

Two more clarifications

I am close to answering your question but want to give two more short clarifications.  The first is this; I think the idea that God condescends to reveal himself to humanity will help us in our conversation.  I want to assert that the idea of “double predestination” is a term of condescension.  I heard of God’s condescension first from my friend and theologian Todd Billings.  It is simply the idea that when God reveals himself to us that it is done in way so we can understand.  Much like how I reveal myself to my five-year-old son.  I must speak and be with my son at a level in which he can understand what is going on.  It is the real me and what I share is true but there is much more to me than what my son is experiencing.  Matter of fact, as he grows older he will see me, reality and truth in a much clearer way.  I think double predestination is a way for us, the five-year olds, to understand something well beyond us.  It is true in a sense but there is much more to it than what our dimly lit theology can see.  To talk about it is to delve into the mysteries of God.  We must be careful or we are in danger of losing our way.

The second clarification is another term I want to introduce.  This is the term antinomy.  This is the idea that two opposing ideas are actually reasonable.  J.I. Packer introduced antinomy as way to understand free will and God’s sovereignty.  We are free agents who can choose and God is totally sovereign in whom He chooses.  I basically agree (Piper does not).  I think from God’s perspective, we are people free to choose (somehow by grace) and God chooses (somehow) who will receive grace.  Again, we are delving into the mind of God.  He is totally unlike us and we are speaking as children.   He is of such immensity and greatness that I think He can hold two seemingly contradictory ideas and in Himself bring them together.  I assume that in eternity it will become clearer and clearer how this happens.

Now to your question:  what if it’s the person you love most in all the world who God picked for hell? Presupposing your theology is correct, do you really think you could worship that God?

With all that said, I am ready to answer your question.  God is love and He is so good that I can trust Him with my most dear friends and family.  Whatever He chooses, which will be the most good He can do for all involved, is all right by me.  This is the God I worship, follow and adore.

Simple and short.  I think the best answers are usually the most simple.  You will have to decide if I came close to giving a compelling answer.

A Question to Benjamin Corey

Now that you know how a friendly Calvinist would answer your question, I have a question for you: what Christian hope do you have if God is not sovereign?  How would you explain the good that He can do to a person in the Sudan, or a loved one with cancer?  If God is not competent, if He cannot do what He wants, then how could you worship such a being?  To me, it sounds like He is like the rest of us, just doing the best He can.  This might be admirable but it is not, at least to me, the God we find in Scriptures.  So, what hope do you give your child, or your friend, or the world or even your enemy?   The ball, my friend, is in your court.