“Word-Centered Church” by Jonathan Leeman

The following is a sort of mixture, both a book review and a personal commentary on some particular applications of the book’s substance.             

In his book, Word-Centered Church, Jonathan Leeman argues for a church theology and practice inundated by Scripture… in other words, a Word-centeredor Scripture-centeredchurch. Leeman writes, “[A Word-centered church] is a church where the words and teachings of Scripture reverberate back and forth, from mouth to mouth and heart to heart” (93).

So, he is not merely calling pastors to preach the Bible, he is calling all the members of a local church to participate holistically in the reverberating word-centeredness of their particular body. In this book, Leeman contends for what he calls a “faith proposition.” He says, “trusting God’s Word to build our churches is an act of faith” (29).

And yet, as any contender should, Leeman notes that many church leaders and members today are not seeking to build Word-centered churches. Numerous evangelical leaders and parishioners (Maybe the vast majority?) are seeking to build their churches by catering to a particular demographic.

In my own Baptist association in East Texas there are several “cowboy churches” and even a “biker church”! I have often wondered why some pastors haven’t stopped hiding the fact that they are seeking to build “affluent churches” or “white-urban-professional churches” or “hipster churches.” If we are targeting these demographics, why pretend we are doing something innovative or clever?

I have personally (to my shame) been a part of a collaborative effort in local church ministry to target a certain demographic on many occasions. As a matter of fact, the evangelistic parachurch ministry I once helped lead was largely built on the supposition that non-Christians needed to be drawn to church services by something other than the Scriptures and the gospel.

In addition to this parachurch experience, I was also one of four pastors on staff at a Southern Baptist church in North Texas who openly employed the Rick Warren model of targeting Saddleback Sam. This is a way of building local church practices, buildings, ambiance, and programs that would suit the tastes of a majority demographic geographically near the local church building. Leeman admits, “in the short term, this will build churches. Demographic and cultural loyalty is genuinely, empirically, demonstrably powerful” (73). I’ve heard this phrased many times as the argument by church leaders advocating for such practices.

 But Leeman is interested in more than just pragmatic strategies, and he effectively brings the reader into the place where the important question can be asked. Leeman sets the scene, inviting the reader to envision himself/herself visiting a church for the first time. He helps picture the imaginary venture, bringing the reader right to a seat in the auditorium, immediately before the start of the service.

Then Leeman asks, “What’s most important to you as you consider whether you will come back to this church?” (84). Every Christian – especially church leaders – must ask this question.

What is the most important thing about a local church?

Borrowing language from the Reformers and the Puritans, the two marks of a true churchare (1) the right preaching of God’s word and (2) the right administration of the sacraments or ordinances. Therefore, the most important thing about a local church – if it seeks to be a true church– is that it faithfully preaches God’s word. God’s word must be preached, taught, explained, believed, and treasured. This is not merely referring to the Sunday sermon, but to the whole life and ministry of the entire congregation. Still, the centrality of Scripture among a congregation certainly starts with the preaching.

In what follows, I will focus on the role of expositional preaching in the local church. I will first observe the divine authority of expositional preaching, then the expected response to expositional preaching. In each of these areas, I will point out the distinctiveness of expositional preaching from other forms of preaching I have experienced and the effects I have seen of expositional preaching under my own pastoral efforts.

Divine Authority

Expositional preaching happens when the main point of the Scriptural text is the main point of the sermon. An expositional sermon helps the hearer understand the Bible better and apply biblical truth to his/her life. In this way, expositional preaching is driven by God’s word, causing some to understand that the preacher is (in effect) speaking on God’s behalf, even as he speaks with his own words on a Sunday.

Leeman asks an important question when he writes, “How can ‘our words’ be ‘His Word’?” Indeed! How can a preacher – especially a cessationist preacher who believes in the sufficiency of Scripture – think that he is preaching “a word from God” as he preaches with his own words from his own mouth? 

I think the answer Leeman gives is helpful. He says, “God speaks through us whenever we plainly and modestly relate whatever He has already said in the Bible” (100). Thus, the preacher engages in something Leeman calls “re-revelation” (Leeman attributed this jargon to D.A. Carson) when he reads and explains God’s singular special revelation (i.e. Scripture). And this is the only grounds for any preacher to claim divine authority when he speaks.

I have noted a bizarre dichotomy of feelings in my own heart as I stand to preach behind a pulpit each Sunday. On the one hand, I am terrified. I am fearful of God’s judgment against my own sin and shortcomings. Who am I to stand before God this day and speak on His behalf?! I am fearful of the people’s judgment against my lack of knowledge and skill. Who am I to speak commandingly to so many people, some far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am?!

On the other hand, I am overwhelmingly confident. I am confident in God’s trustworthiness, His wisdom, His justice, and His grace. I am confident of the people’s need for God’s truth, their need to understand it, to believe it, to submit it, and to be nourished by it. The reason for this dichotomy is that I feel the weight of my own ineptitude and the weight of God’s own majesty. As a preacher, I can speak with divine authority when (and only when) I faithfully read, explain, and apply God’s holy word.

Therefore, expositional preaching plays the role of giving divinely authoritative direction to a particular local church. Who are we? What shall we do? How shall we live? All of these questions are answered on the pages of Scripture, and it is the job of the preacher to expound the Scripture in the context of a particular church family so that they may be hearers and doers of God’s word.

A Right Response

Because expositional preaching is the kind of preaching that best displays divinely authoritative preaching, it is also the best kind of preaching for leading the hearer toward a biblical response. Preaching is not essentially guidelines for living, steps for improving, or suggestions for success. Preaching (when it is faithfully expositional) is a divine word from God that must be believed and heeded. Leeman notes that “the Bible does two things: It announces what God has done, and it confronts its hearers with this news and its implications” (110).

Expositional preaching, then, announces the indicatives and imperatives of God’s word and confronts the hearer in his/her error. The assumption here is that the hearer is in error, and Leeman addresses that in the book as well. But, for the sake of space, I want to focus on the response that expositional preaching expects from the hearer. It expects divine transformation.

Among my congregation in rural East Texas there may be a number of Christians who are struggling to hear expositional preaching. Their palates have been trained to lap up nutrient-sparse messages of moralism and self-improvement. Many churches within a 20-mile radius of our church building continue striving to package a better therapeutic or culturally-traditional model of doing church.

Because this is true, expositional preaching has been somewhat off-putting to some church members and many visitors. They do not like the emphasis upon propositional statements over motivational ones. They sometimes wonder why there isn’t the same stress upon southern and rural American values, and they chafe at some words of admonition against cultural conformity.

Some, however, have begun to see that it is life-transformation we are after. Some exhibit the fruit of the Spirit’s work in their lives through the reverberation of the Scriptures. Some have joyfully embraced the higher goal of transformation, leaving behind the worldly goal of self-affirming spiritual guidance.

I think of Steve, who read between the lines of my gentle admonition, now looking for ways to read Scripture together with his adult daughters who are grown and gone, all three seeming to be nominal Christians. I think of Kathy, who started reading Scripture together with her mother and three sisters one night each week. Kathy heard her mother pray for the first time about a year ago, and we baptized Wanda (Kathy’s 80-yr-old mom) into membership in 2018.

I think of David, who became a deacon about 2 years ago and joined a weekly study of systematic theology in order to understand the Bible better. I think of Donald, who seems like a 70-yr-old “cage-stage” Reformed guy because he has just begun to grasp what it means that God is truly sovereign and that sound doctrine is life-giving.

Conclusion

God’s word alone has the power to transform lives. In the local church, the role of expositional preaching is to unleash the beast of God’s word without any of the trappings we might try to place upon it in our effort to dress it up a bit or make it more desirable for our modern culture. Christ is King! His word of grace saves! And His Spirit works through His word to transform all those who love and trust Him.

May God raise up many more preachers who humbly believe the “faith proposition” Leeman calls for in this book, and may God glorify Himself through the ministry of many Word-centeredchurches.

A Perspective on the Historical Development of “Calvinism”

There is much to be said about Calvinism among American Evangelicals today. In my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, there has been no small amount of concern about the recent resurgence of Calvinistic theology and people claiming to be Calvinists.

In this brief essay, I merely want to offer a fast-paced perspective of how some of the foundational doctrines of Calvinism developed and were articulated throughout church history. This is obviously not an exhaustive report or historical volume. I simply want to offer the average reader an opportunity to gain an introductory perspective of how we arrived here in American Evangelicalism.

John Calvin did not invent “Calvinism”

The five doctrines, known as the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP,” or “the Doctrines of Grace,” were not articulated as “five points” until sometime in the 1800s. John Calvin was born in 1509 and he died in 1564. As a matter of fact, the doctrines in focus in the “Five Points of Calvinism” were only collected in a group when students of a Dutch theologian, named Jacobus Arminius, protested these doctrines in a town called Dort, in the Netherlands (1618-19). Arminius was born in 1560, so he was 4 years old when Calvin died, and his students never met Calvin at all.

I will say more about the “Five Points of Calvinism” in a bit, and I will even give a brief overview of the acrostic “TULIP,” but before I do, let me show you that these doctrines were already in focus way back in the early church. In fact, the “T” in TULIP (standing for Total Depravity) can at least be traced back to a theological debate among churchmen in the fourth-century.

Augustine vs. Pelagius on Total Depravity[1]

Late in the fourth-century (like 398-99 AD), a North-African bishop by the name of Augustine wrote the longest prayer known to man. It was a 300+ page autobiography, emphasizing his own conversion to Christ from paganism, which was entirely written as a prayer. It was a best-selling book at that time, and you can still find it in print today because Christians have recognized Augustine’s tremendous biblical insight and humble honesty.

In this book, Augustine wrote,

My whole hope is in Your exceedingly great mercy and that alone. You command self-control from us, but I am sure that no one can have self-control unless You give it to him. Grant what You command and command what You will (or in some translations: whatever pleases You).”

Essentially, Augustine was claiming that fallen humans (i.e. sinful humans after Genesis 3) cannot do anything genuinely good unless or until God enables them to do so. This claim is basic to the doctrine known as “Total Depravity.”

Total Depravitydoes not mean that fallen humans are as bad as they could be… as though a sinner could not possibly be any worse than he or she already is. We all know that we could be much worse than we are right now. Instead, Total Depravityis the doctrinal understanding that fallen humans are affected by sin in such a way so that no part of the person is left untouched by sin (our body, our minds, and our will or desires).

Augustine’s view of fallen humanity was built upon biblical descriptions of the sinful corruption of fallen humans.

For example, Romans 3:10-12says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Or Ephesians 2:1-3speaks of the deadness of man’s soul and the corruption of his desires. The Apostle Paul wrote to Christians, saying, “you were [once] dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Pelagius, an ascetic monk and theologian who lived during the same time period as Augustine, read Augustine’s book and didn’t like that particular part of Augustine’s prayer.

Pelagius said, “How can God hold humans responsible for not doing what they cannot do? Man is either utterly free to obey the commands of God, or God’s commands are unjust… God is unjust.”

Pelagius argued that even fallen humans must be able to obey God’s commands without God’s help (i.e. without God’s gracious and active intervention). Whatever sinful corruption humans suffer after the fall of Adam, Pelagius argued, these effects have not taken away man’s ability to do genuine good and obey God’s commands.

Unlike Augustine, Pelagius does not have any surviving works today, so historians don’t know very much about him. His students were the ones who picked up his cause against Augustine’s doctrines of man’s depravity and God’s sovereignty, and the doctrinal dispute came to a head at the Council of Ephesusin 431 AD. That gathering of Christian pastors and theologians declared Pelagianism an officialheresy– a doctrine that is outside of the umbrella of Christianity (an unbiblical teaching of a First-Level doctrine).

On a side note: Southern Baptists have historically agreed with Augustine and the Council of Ephesus on this matter. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” Therefore, anyone who disagrees with Augustine or John Calvin on the nature of fallen humans must also admit that they disagree with Southern Baptists.

Though Pelagianism was outed as an official heresy in 431 AD, a similar doctrinal teaching emerged among Christians only about 100 years later (called Semi-Pelagianism). In this modified view, Semi-Pelagians claimed that fallen humans do not have the ability to do genuinely good things, but they argued that there was a general distribution of God’s grace among all humans, which brought every person back to a neutral position from which they could choose to do good or evil (this is known as “prevenient grace”).

In 529 AD, Semi-Pelagianism was also condemned as a heresy at the Council of Orange(in southern France). For the next 1,000 years, Augustine’s view of natural man’s inability to choose genuine good (Total Depravity) was the standard of orthodox Christian doctrine in Western Christianity. And yet, Semi-Pelagianism remained a constant doctrinal rival to the orthodox view, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing ground. In fact, the doctrine of “prevenient grace” was a dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestants during the Reformation.

Protestant Reformers vs. Roman Catholic Church on “Monergism”

During the Protestant Reformation, this millennium-old doctrinal dispute came to the fore again. This time theological terms were coined to describe the work of regeneration (This is the biblical term associated with the concept of being “born again”). The argument was set something like this: If fallen humans are in fact unable to do genuine good unless or until God enables them to do so(i.e. Total Depravity), then God must be the one who acts alone upon dead sinners to make them spiritually alive and desirous of genuine good.

Of course, this kind of reasoning was not invented by mere philosophy. This argumentation is directly drawn from Scripture. Consider Ephesians 2:1-8.

1 You were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”

The doctrinal divide between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church is best summed up in two words: Monergismand Synergism.

Monergism literally means “one unit working.” Monergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God alone works to regenerate the sinner.” In other words, regeneration is an act or work of God’s grace, to which the sinner responds with faith and repentance… one has faith because he/she is born again… one is not born again because of faith.

The Protestant Reformers argued that fallen humans can do nothing to save themselves or even to make themselves savable. Salvation (particularly regeneration) is by the grace of God alone, and the sinner is merely a passive beneficiary of this miraculous divine work.

Synergism literally means “units working together.” Synergism, in our theological discussion, declares “God and the sinner cooperate in the work of regeneration.” In other words, regeneration is the cooperative work of both God and the sinner… one is born again partly because he/she has faith and partly because God graciously works spiritual life in them.

The Roman Catholic Church argued that fallen humans are indeed sinful, but God distributes “prevenient grace” to all people everywhere, which brings humans to something of a neutral state in their desire for good and evil. The sinner cooperates with this “prevenient grace” in order to prepare himself/herself (by doing genuine good) to receive God’s saving grace. In this way the Roman Catholic Church brought Semi-Pelagianism back from the heresy trashcan.

On a side note: If you are wondering where Southern Baptists land on this issue, we may look again to the Baptist Faith and Message, which says, “As soon as they [i.e. humans] are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God [i.e. God’s commands].” The Baptist Faith and Message goes on to say, “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit [i.e. brought about by the Holy Spirit] through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that the Baptist Faith and Message says that ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ are how the sinner ‘responds’ to the gracious work of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the act of God alone, which precedes faith… This is a clear affirmation of Monergism. So, again we find that those who disagree with John Calvin (also a Monergist) are in disagreement with Southern Baptists as well.

Before there was such a thing as a Southern Baptist, and even before John Calvin was a theologian, Protestant Reformers were Monergists. Peter Waldo (born 1140), John Wycliffe (born in 1330), Jan Hus (born 1369), Martin Luther (born 1483), Ulrich Zwingli (born in 1484), Thomas Cranmer (born 1489), William Farel (born 1489), Martin Bucer (born 1491), and William Tyndale (born in 1494) were all Monergists. John Calvin wasn’t born until 1509, and Martin Luther published his masterful book (Bondage of the Will), describing the inability of man’s will and the necessity of God’s monergistic work, when John Calvin was only 16 years old.

The reason for citing all of this is, once again, to say that John Calvin did not invent what is known today as “Calvinism.” The “Five Points of Calvinism” or “TULIP,” as we shall see, is the summary of doctrines that have deep roots in Christian history. But, Christians have been looking to the Bible a long time for answers to all kinds of questions. Many of the questions that center on salvation are at the heart of Christian doctrine.

The Five Points of Calvinism

As I mentioned earlier, what often goes under the heading of “Calvinism” today was not the invention of John Calvin. In fact, anyone who has read Calvin’s writings would know that Calvin would be horrified to learn that Christians have used his name to label any doctrine. Calvin was a bookish introvert, who almost never spoke or wrote about himself. His life’s work was given to studying, preaching, and teaching the Bible. Many Christian theologians today think that Calvin was the best Christian mind up to that point in history (the 1500s), but Calvin wanted nothing of any celebrity status. At Calvin’s request, his body was buried in a mass unmarked grave when he died, because he did not want any fuss made about his burial place.

So where did the so-called “Five Points” come from? When did the TULIPs bloom? Well, simply put, it is not clear exactly when the acrostic “TULIP” was fist formulated.

As I said before, it was sometime in the 1800s when TULIP was first used to describe the “Five Points of Calvinism.” But before then, there was a statement that came out from a council of churchmen in the Netherlands, which articulated the doctrines in summary form. It is important to remember, however, the “Five Points” stated at this gathering were only in response to “five disagreements” that an outside group raised in dispute.

Synod of Dort: The Origins of TULIP

Jacobus Arminius was a Dutch theologian (1560-1609) who lived a generation after John Calvin. Arminius thought highly of Calvin, saying, “Next to the study of the Scriptures… I exhort my students to read Calvin’s Commentaries carefully and thoroughly… for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture.” However, Arminius disagreed with some of Calvin’s theology. Arminius believed that God elected to save some sinners because God knew these sinners would respond positively to the gospel in the future. Arminius also believed that sinners could restrain the renewing power of the Holy Spirit and that Christians could lose their salvation if they did not persevere.

Calvin and Arminius never met (Calvin died when Arminius was 4 years old), but Arminius’s followers (known as the “Remonstrance”) organized their opposition to some of Calvin’s doctrines about 50 years after Calvin died. It all came to a head at the Synod of Dort(1618-19).[2]

The Remonstrance were 42 ministers, influenced by Arminius’ writings against some of Calvin’s theology. They petitioned the state to ask for theological allowance since Semi-Pelagianism was already classified as a heresy 1,000 years earlier. At that time in history, most Reformers were magisterial (meaning they still operated inside of a church structure that was connected to the civil magistrate). Religious freedom as we know it in America today isn’t really a thing until very recently in human history.

The Five Articles of the Remonstranceare:

Conditional Predestination: God predestines some sinners for salvation, and this predestination is conditionally based on God’s foreknowledge about each person’s anticipated faith or unbelief.

Universal Atonement: Christ died for all humans, and God intended His sacrifice for all humans, but only those sinners who accept this atoning work will be saved.

Saving Faith or Serious Depravity: Sinful and Fallen humanity is unable to attain saving faith, unless he is regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Resistible Grace: The grace of God is effective, but it is resistible, so man must cooperate with God’s grace to bring about personal salvation.

Uncertainty of Perseverance: Although God’s grace is abundant, the sinner can lose that grace and become lost even after he has been saved.

The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, which declared that Arminianism was a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. With this judgment, the Synod produced several “canons” or statements about the doctrine of salvation, some of which became the origins of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” These five statements are commonly listed today in short form with the acrostic TULIP.

A Summary of TULIP

Regrettably, many who call themselves “Calvinists” today are merely intending to say that they affirm somewhere between 3 and 5 of the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Calvin is so much more than these isolated points. Calvin’s commentaries on various books of the Bible are a treasure to any Christian who desires to understand the depth of Scripture. Calvin’s life-long work, the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” are a touchstone for almost every systematic theology book written in the last 500 years. I have personally found Calvin’s “Little Book on the Christian Life” to be one of the most praise-inspiring books I have ever read.

Now, don’t forget that Calvin was a sinful human just like everyone else. I am not saying that he was perfect, or that anyone should try to follow him above or even beside Christ. I am saying that Calvin was a hero of the Christian Faith, and we are fools to disregard or disparage someone like Calvin – especially if we haven’t even read anything he actually said for himself.

Another regrettable reality, when it comes to “Calvinism” today, is that the acrostic “TULIP” provides us with some less-than-helpful phrases. The flower is easy to remember, but its theological precision is quite lacking.

Here are the Five Points of Calvinismor TULIP:

Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are affected by sin in every aspect of who they are – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and they are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s work was intentionally for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

Irresistible Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (Monergism), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit. All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, trusting and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

Perseverance of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will grow in personal holiness in this life and will persevere unto glory (Rom. 8:28-39).

Not every Christian will immediately agree with these five points of Calvinism, and many Calvinists have even found some disagreement with some of these points. The object of this essay is not to convince anyone to be a Calvinist, or even to explain what Calvinism is. I have simply endeavored to give an introduction to the historical development of some of the central doctrines of Calvinism.

[1]See a very helpful breakdown of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism here: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/semi-pelagian.html

[2]See a great historical and theological explanation of the Synod of Dort here: https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2018/06/the-synod-of-dort/

Is ‘Ave Maria’ really a Christmas song?

If you are like me, then you probably love this time of year for many reasons. I especially love Christmas decorations, meals, and music. It is marvelous to hear “Joy to the world, the Lord has come… Let earth receive her king!” being announced as a proclamation everywhere, even if most listeners don’t notice the strong Messianic themes of such a song.

However, not all Christmas songs are so glorious. Some are just silly, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, and yet others are insidious. Now, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, nor do I intend to nit-pick all theologically inaccurate Christmas music, but I want to toss out a friendly reminder that Christians ought to be choosy about what they embrace as Christ-honoring carols.

Listen to whatever music you like, and enjoy the jingling bells of Christmas, but don’t assume that every Christmas song is a tribute to the Christ who ought to be the central focus of Christmas.

Take ‘Ave Maria,’ for example. This song has a beautiful arrangement. Who isn’t amazed by the range and pitch of this incredible music? I am especially impressed with Andrea Bocelli’s rendition… What a voice!

But, Christians should be more interested in the content, the lyrics, of a song than others. Christianity is a religion of content, substance, truth, and historical and theological propositions. Christians believe that Jesus really was born of the virgin Mary, that this God-man lived to die, and that Jesus conquered death forevermore for all those who would believe, trust and follow Him. Christians believe (as the Scriptures teach) that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and sinful people, and Christians seek grace from God through Christ alone for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The song Ave Maria speaks of a different mediator and hope-giver in the hour of death, however. See the lyrics below, the Latin on the left and English on the right.

Ave Maria

Gratia plena

Maria, gratia plena

Maria, gratia plena

Ave, ave dominus

Dominus tecum

Benedicta tu in mulieribus

Et benedictus

Et benedictus fructus ventris         

Ventris tuae, Jesus

Ave Maria

Ave Maria

Mater Dei

Ora pro nobis peccatoribus

Ora pro nobis, Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus

Nunc et in hora mortis

Et in hora mortis nostrae

Et in hora mortis nostrae

Et in hora mortis nostrae

Ave Maria

Hail, Mary

Full of grace.

Mary full of grace

Mary full of grace

Blessed are you among women

Hail, hail, the Lord

The Lord is with you

And blessed

And blessed is the fruit of your womb

Your womb, Jesus

Hail, Mary

Hail, Mary

Mother of God

Pray for us sinners

Pray for us, pray, pray for us sinners

Now and at the hour of death

And at the hour of death

And at the hour of death

And at the hour of death

Hail, Mary

This song of prayer and admiration for Mary is a mixture of Scriptural truth (blessings upon Mary and her role in giving birth to Jesus) and terrible falsehood (Mary as intercessor and hope in the hour of one’s death).

Mary cannot save or rescue or even intercede for you. She cannot do these things even for herself. Mary, like all other humans, is a guilty sinner before God apart from the person and work of Christ on her behalf. Don’t sing to Mary; don’t pray to Mary; and certainly, don’t place your hope for grace in Mary.

If you are a sinner in need of grace, then the Christmas story has much hope to offer you. God has sent Jesus Christ into the world to live and die and conquer death for guilty sinners. This message of the gospel is what Christmas is all about, and I recommend that you give every moment you are able to the investigation of the singularly spectacular hero of Christmas – Jesus Christ.

What is a Pastor supposed to do?

The ministry of the word of God is the sum and substance of the work of every pastor. While many pastors and churches may argue that some other task can (or even should) supersede the pastoral preaching and teaching and modeling of God’s word, none can do so on the basis of Scripture. Therein, it seems to me, lies the problem.

In our day, it appears there are generally three distinct categories on a spectrum of pastoral ministry philosophy.

Pastoral Ministry Philosophy

One idea is that a pastor is much like a self-improvement coach, whose main job is to motivate, inspire, and encourage spiritually-minded underachievers. Pastors who apply this philosophy are usually fond of highlighting personal potential and using the language of pop-psychology, and they are often quite reassuring and positive. These pastors seem to value mutual affirmation and inclusivity.

Another conceptual sketch of the pastoral role is akin to an organizational CEO. In this model of pastoral ministry, the pastor is the visionary leader with an innovative and effective strategy, which can skillfully assimilate attendees through pathways that can be noticeably illustrated on a structural flowchart. These pastors often value pragmatic efficiency and results.

The third general category of pastoral ministry philosophy perceives the ultimate responsibility of the pastor to be centered upon thinking about, teaching, and living according to the Bible. Pastors who understand themselves to be ministers of God’s word are compelled to spend time reading and thinking about the Bible. These pastors also talk about the Bible when they are with others, and they make time to help other people read and think about the Bible.

The three categories I have described here are distinct from one another, but they are not separate. In fact, you’ll probably notice all three (to greater and lesser degrees) in just about any pastor you measure. Pastors should, in a sense, be like a sports coach, urging their hearer on towards personal growth and action. Pastors must also, like a business executive, manage much in a local congregation. However, a pastor’s responsibility to a local church is first-and-foremost the ministry of the word of God.

A Ministry of the Word

In Acts chapter 6, we see this idea emphasized in the division of labor among pastors/elders and deacons (though these office titles are not specifically stated there). There was a dispute about how to best administrate the distribution of resources to needy people among a congregation. The pastors/elders refused to be distracted from their primary responsibility to pray and minister the word of God, so they appointed godly men to serve in the needed administrative task. This shows a division of labor, but it does not sufficiently explain what the pastoral ministry of the word is. For an explanation of such a weighty responsibility, let’s look at a powerful charge from one minister of the word to another.

The Apostle Paul said to his younger disciple and friend,

“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” (2 Tim. 4:1–2).

I cannot think of a stronger charge. In this sobering and inspiring charge, we can account for the “why” and the “how” of a word-centered pastoral ministry.

How?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God by preaching and by readily reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with complete patience and teaching. This is an all-of-life description with emphases on patience and preparedness, and a special attention to preaching. I understand preaching to be a kind of teaching accompanied by a call to repentance, faith, and reformation.

Why?

Pastors are to be ministers of the word of God because Christ is present, Christ is the judge now and forevermore, and Christ is coming with the fullness of His kingdom. It is Christ’s words that judge; His words are the blessing of life and the curse of death (Jn. 5:28-29). Christ is present in His words, and all His judgments are based on His words (Jn. 14:23-24).

In the end, the words of Christ alone will last (1 Pet. 1:22-25), and this compels the minister of God’s word to speak with boldness and confidence (2 Tim. 2:15) as a shepherd of God’s sheep who is destined to meet his glorious King face to face (2 Cor. 4:1-6).

May God raise up many godly men to pastor with such a perspective and conviction.

Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.

What is a “good” pastor?

If you have been part of a local church or among the leadership of a local church, then you have probably thought or said something about the quality of a pastor or pastors.

I love my pastor because he showed great care for me when my daughter was in the hospital last year.”

That pastor is not so great because he doesn’t seem to connect well with guests and first-time visitors each Sunday.”

That pastor is awesome because he doesn’t seem like a typical pastor.”

Whatever you might think about your pastor, or pastors generally, I’d like to invite you to consider the reality that pastors do indeed have a tremendous impact on the local church. In fact, one way to know if a church family is healthy and if they will grow healthier over time is to learn about the pastor or pastors who lead them.

Biblically qualified pastors or elders or “undershepherds” is one mark or feature of a healthy church, and Christians are wise to think more about this subject. Learn more about building healthy churches by visiting 9marks.org.

What are the biblical qualifications of an undershepherd (i.e. pastor or elder)? When you think of a well-qualified pastor, what comes to mind? Do the qualifications you are thinking about have any Scriptural support or are they based on your life experience or your preferences? How would you know if a man was qualified to serve as a pastor? How would you know if a man should be removed pastoring your local church?

Thankfully, the Bible gives a thorough list of pastoral qualifications and the Bible provides examples of good pastors.

  • A pastor or elder should have a clean reputation (1 Tim. 3:2, 7; Titus 1:6-7).
  • If He is married, he should be a faithful husband and his wife should be godly and faithful as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4; Titus 1:6).
  • He should manage his household well (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).
  • He should be self-controlled and financially temperate (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8).
  • He should be hospitable and mature in his Christian walk (1 Tim. 3:2, 6; Titus 1:8).
  • He should be doctrinally sound and able to teach sound doctrine to others (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).

If you see men among your church family who meet these qualifications, then you should praise God for them. For such men are a gift from Christ to His people (Eph. 4:11-12), and they are a blessing to your soul (Heb. 13:17). If, however, you are sitting under the shepherding care of a man who fails to meet one or more of these qualifications, then you should have grave concerns.

We are warned in Scripture about false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1) and false gospels (Gal. 1:6-9). Furthermore, God blames congregations for listening to those who lead them astray (Gal. 1:6-9).

It is vitally important that every member of a local church understand these qualifications. If some church members measure the quality of pastoral leadership by some other standard, then an unqualified man may seem more valuable than he truly is, or a highly qualified man may seem less than desirable.

May God raise up more qualified pastors/elders and may He cause many churches to be healthier through the efforts of such men. May God also help church members to value and appreciate good pastors/elders by measuring them by biblical standards.

What is Church Membership?

It is biblical and valuable!

What is church membership?

The topic of church membership has garnered great interest among Evangelical circles in recent years. Surely, all would agree that a discussion of the meaning and value of church membership can be rewarding in the context of any local church. And yet, it does seem that some local churches are hesitant to think critically about their own practice of church membership. This article is, in large part, a plea for local churches to think about the concept of church membership and the right practice of church membership in their specific context.

Biblical investigation, historical study, and personal introspection are all great efforts when addressing church membership and related topics. When church history agrees with Scripture, we may gain insight from the application of biblical truth in a context that is not our own.  When church history diverges from or unnecessarily exceeds the teaching of the Bible, we are better equipped to learn how we may avoid these mistakes ourselves by learning from others. Of course, the question is not ultimately, “How did people do church membership in the past?” The question is, “How should we do church membership right now?”

Church membership has lost its value.

To say that the value of church membership has diminished among the majority of Evangelical churches today is not to say that church membership is not valuable.  My statement is about the perception of many Evangelical church members, not the actual value of church membership.

It seems clear to me that many Evangelical church members (especially in the Southern Baptist Convention) perceive church membership as having little or no value whatever in their daily lives. The statistic of members to regular attendees is sufficient to illustrate the perceived lack of value among Southern Baptists. There are about 15 million members among SBC churches, but only about 33% of these can be found gathering with fellow members on any given Sunday.

If one does not think enough of church membership to worship regularly with fellow members, then one does not value church membership.

The reason I have begun by articulating the problem (namely a devaluation of church membership) is that I believe this current situation is one of our own making (speaking of Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals). I, therefore, believe that the solution is achievable by those same ones who have created the problem. We must resolve to carefully and diligently practice biblical church membership.

We have largely made church membership a consumer-driven category, much like any other social or service-oriented organization. Church leaders look for new and innovative ways to cater to the taste-preferences of their target audience, and then create organizational structures by which they seek to achieve maximum saturation of their niche market.

Many church leaders hope to draw in an ever-larger crowd by targetting and winning an audience, much like corporate marketing specialists.

All of this feeds into the self-centered idea that the customer is king and the whole organization exists at the behest of the customer. At the end of the day, church members think of the church as an institution which exists to serve the felt-needs of its members. Church members think this way because the church leaders taught them to do so by their own words and actions.

The result of this kind of practice is an appalling lack of accountability, authority, and discipling. In fact, such things are considered abhorrent to the marketing and consumer-driven structure. Accountability, authority, and discipline would undermine the foundational values of any customer-centered organizational model.

Church membership is thoroughly biblical and highly valuable.

In contrast to this modern invention of church growth techniques, the Bible actually presents a simple and God-centered structure and purpose for church membership. It seems clear to me that the purpose of church membership is articulated throughout the New Testament in the form of commitments and responsibilities.

Here are some of the commitments I find in the New Testament.

  • The individual Christian must commit to other Christians (Col. 3:12-17).
  • The individual Christian must submit to the oversight of church leadership (Heb. 13:17).
  • Pastors/elders commit themselves to the task of lovingly shepherding (leading, teaching, loving) a particular local assembly of Christians (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
  • Christians must join together for mutual support and accountability (Gal. 6:1-2).
  • Under the care and instruction of godly leaders (i.e. pastors/elders), a congregation must strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in its ability to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).

The biblical understanding of church membership makes clear the distinction between the people of God and the rest of the world. Those who enjoy new life in Christ are trained and corrected so that they may flourish in their new life. Those who resist the disciplines of Christian living are rebuked and held accountable for opposing the very practices that produce greater life in all who follow Christ.

In the practice of biblical church membership, Christians are distinguished from the world, and Christians grow alongside one another in grace and love.

The results of practicing biblical church membership are increasing spiritual health, progress in personal holiness, and growth in effective Christian witness to the world. The gospel of Christ, which asserts that blessed transformation is at the heart of God’s gracious plan for sinners, is made visible among congregations like these.

May God revitalize, reform, and renew Evangelical churches to reflect the purity and love which Christ said would mark His disciples in the world (Jn. 13:35).