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Dr. Bruce Ware: Comparing Covenant and Dispensational Theology

MUSINGS ON BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THESE TWO THEOLOGICAL SYSTEMS

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These are both movements that really affect a large swath of the evangelical Church with Covenant Theology affecting so much of the Church in the Reformed tradition and Dispensationalism largely through the first study Bible that came out, The Scofield Reference Bible (that was the only one when I was growing up; my folks had the Scofield Reference Bible). It made a big impact on Dallas Seminary and all of its graduates when Dallas was putting out so many pastors for Bible churches and independent Baptist churches. The Bible school movement was largely Dispensational. Moody Bible Institute and most of the Bible schools around the country were Dispensational. Some other seminaries that were Dallas-influenced are Talbot Seminary, Biola University (it used to be Bible Institute of Los Angeles and that is where Biola comes from; J. Vernon McGee and a number of people connected with Biola were Dispensational), Western Seminary (where I went) used to be a Dallas clone and it was Dispensational. So many areas in evangelical life in North America were affected by it.

We need to take a brief look at these two views. One heartening thing I will tell you at the beginning is it is one of those wonderful areas where, though there was such disagreement forty years ago, to the point where there were strong accusations being made by both sides about the other, today there has been a coming together of these movements by sort of progressives of both sides. With Modified Covenantalists and Modified Dispensationalists, the differences between them now, among those Modified groups, is minor in significance. It is not that much to worry about, to be honest with you. It is one area where godly, humble biblical scholarship and theological reflection has resulted in both sides being willing to acknowledge the excesses of their traditions and make changes. The result of that has been to come together in a marvelous way. If you want to read something that talks about this well, Dr. Russ Moore wrote his dissertation on the changing theological positions of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology as that affects socio-political action. But in order to get that “as it affects” part, he had to do quite a bit of theological ground work in describing what was going on in these two movements. A large portion of his dissertation relates to mega-changes, and the mega-shifts that have taken place in both of these movements. It is very well done.

A. Covenant Theology

1. General Description – Two Broad Covenants

Covenant theology holds, in terms of its basic understanding of Scripture, that we should understand the Bible as portraying fundamentally two covenants: a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace.

In the Covenant of Works, God made a covenant with Adam in the Garden, according to Covenant Theology. Namely, if you obey me and follow me and resist eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; if you stay away from that, if you don’t eat of that tree and follow me in obedience, then you will ultimately receive life. Covenant theologians have seen this as something more than the life of Adam then. It is not just a continuation of his life in the garden temporally, but what we would speak of as eternal life. They propose that there must have been a probationary period in which this testing was undertaken. Had Adam passed the test (who knows how much longer it might have been; maybe two more days and the test would have been over; we just don’t know), then he would have received eternal life because of his works. But if Adam failed the test, if he were to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, then we know from the text, in the day that you eat from it you will surely die (Gen 2:17). So death for disobedience; life, presumably a better life, a greater that the life he had now for obedience.

Covenant theologians acknowledge that the first part of this, the promise of life for obedience, is not stated explicitly in Scripture. But they think that it is implied by the negative statement, “If you eat of it you will die”. If you don’t eat of the tree, then you would receive the gift of eternal life. If that is the case, then it must be something different than what you have now, and if that is the case, there must be a probationary period. There must be a time period after which this would be given. All of that follows from what they know to be the case; namely, there is command given that if you eat of the tree you will die. The other part of it is spin off from that.

We all know that Adam failed the test and brought death upon himself and all of his progeny. Romans chapter 5 tells us that in Adam all sin and deserve his death. So we learn from Paul in Romans 5:12 and following that all die in Adam’s one sin.

In order to save sinners, God brings about another covenant. This is not a Covenant of Works because sinners could never work to make the payment necessary to satisfy a holy God on account of the offense that has been committed. The guilt is too great, and the offense is too serious. Another Covenant of Works (work it off now, pay your dues, pay off your debt) won’t work for human beings, for sinners. God inaugurates, instead, a Covenant of Grace, whereby his Son will pay the penalty for sinners, and those sinners in exchange will receive the righteousness of Christ. It is quite a deal for sinners. We give Christ our sins and he gives us his righteousness.

Double imputation is part of this understanding as well. Our sin is imputed to Christ, so he pays the penalty for our guilt and it is charged against him even though he doesn’t deserve to pay it. That’s what imputation means at that point; our sin is charged against Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us; it is credited to our account by faith – justification.

How much of the Bible does the Covenant of Works cover, what does it span? The Covenant of Works covers Genesis 1, 2 and part of Genesis 3 where the sin takes place. What about the Covenant of Grace where sinners now cannot be saved by works? If they are going to be saved it has to be by grace? Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. The point of this is that it leads Covenant theologians, in the traditional understanding, to think in terms of the broad sense of the holistic nature of virtually all of the Bible, from Gen 3 on, which is most of the Bible. Basically, the whole Bible fits under this Covenant of Grace notion. This leads to, in Covenant Theology, a strong sense of uniformity throughout the Bible, that is a strong sense of continuity. There is one thing God is doing from the sin in the garden and on, that is he is providing for human sin and saving the people. The Covenant of Grace spans both Testaments; it spans Israel and Church. In that sense, it leads to a unified sense in all of Scripture: Old and New Testaments together.

2. Covenant Hermeneutic

Because of this sense of unity that takes place, the hermeneutic of Covenant Theology tends to see in Scripture a unified teaching in both Testaments. So there is less of a notion in Covenant Theology that new things come about in divine revelation at new periods of revelation, rather there is more of a notion of simply amplifying or explaining with grater clarity or precession what has been there from the beginning. So for example, in Covenant Theology there is much more a tendency to look back in the Old Testament and see the same kinds of things as you do in the New Treatment. I’ll give you an example of that; some of you know that I teach an elective on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The older Covenant theologians (some of the more recent ones, Richard Gap and Sinclair Ferguson have not have gone this route) would tend to see everything that is true of the of the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Testament, his indwelling, his sealing, his empowering that is true for New Testament believers, is also true for Old Testament believers because of this uniformity idea. So if you ask the question what is new at Pentecost or new in the New Covenant? It is more a sense of extension of coverage than it is qualitative experience in the lives of true believers. God will extend this to the ends of the earth: Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. To the ends of the earth means extending this beyond the boundaries of the restricted members of the people of God. It is going to go public, nationwide, worldwide. My view is that this is a mistake to think this way. Instead there is a radical new happening when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost that the Old Testament actually prophesied and predicted was going to happen that would make a tremendously different change to the people of God. So you really have to have, it was once this way but now is this way. There really is a change, a marked qualitative kind of change that takes place in the coming of the Spirit in the New Covenant than in the Old. This is a more Dispensational way of thinking. Take a text like Romans 8:3-4

“For what the Law could not do [under the law this didn’t happen, the Law couldn’t do this], weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [we are talking history now, at this point in history, when Christ comes], and as an offering for sin, Him condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) So that looks to me like we ought to read it as under the Law things were one way, but now that the Spirit has come, Christ has come, things are different. But if you read the Old Covenant writers on the Holy Spirit, you will find a very strong urge to assume that New Testament teachings about the Holy Spirit must be true of Old Testament saints as well.

A similar thing might be said of Christology. There is a very strong sense of trying to see as much as possible of Christ in the Old Testament. Luke 24 makes it very clear that Christ taught concerning himself from the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (Luke 24:27).

It is a matter of which texts, what they are saying, and to what extent. There is a tendency in Covenant Theology to see more than what others might see from other traditions. The main point I am trying to stress here is that with this Covenant hermeneutic there is a tendency to see uniformity of content between the Testaments.

3. Israel and the Church

One of the places where this becomes both the clearest and most decisive in terms of separating covenant and Dispensational views is how Covenant Theology understands Israel and the Church. Here again, with the basic hermeneutic of uniformity, Covenant Theology would view true Israel as the people of God, that is, true Israel, saved Israel as the people of God and the Church as the people of God. There is really one people of God in both Testaments, both saved by faith, both serving the same God, both the special objects of God’s saving love. Israel really could be thought of and spoken of as the Old Testament Church. The Church in the New Testament can rightly be thought of as New Testament Israel. So we have Old Testament Church, that’s Israel, and we have New Testament Israel, that’s Church. So there really should not be seen significant differences as they are the people of God. Granted Israel is also ethnic and the Church is multiethnic. But apart from that difference, as it relates to nation and ethnicity, we ought to understand the people of God, as believers, constituting the same group of people.

What about promises made to Israel that seem to relate to a time in the future; for example, Israel coming back to her land, or her ultimate salvation by God. What about promises that look like they are eschatological in the Old Testament, and are not fulfilled at any particular point in history in the Old Testament or New Testament period? What do we say about those promises that relate to Israel? God makes the promise, I’ll take from your lands where you have been and I’ll bring you back to your land and you shall have one God, and I will reign over you, and I will destroy your enemies. All of these promises given to Israel, what should we do with those? In Covenant Theology, there is a very strong tendency to go in the direction of saying those promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the New Testament Israel – the Church. So the Church becomes the object of those promises.

In Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see Old Testament promises as coming straight forward and being fulfilled in the Church. So the land promises (you will be back in your land) shouldn’t be understand as literal land; there is not going to be a day when the ethnic people of Israel occupy literal geography; that is not the point of those promises. It is rather that they will have their kingdom, and it is a spiritual kingdom.

So the promises to Israel are to be fulfilled in a spiritual manner in the Church. When it talks about the Jews being saved, we are all Jews. Remember Paul in Romans 2 says, we are circumcised in Abraham. We are, by faith, part of the seed of Abraham in Galatians (Galatians 3:16). We should understand that all of us are Jews spiritually because we are tied in through Christ, through the seed of Abraham. After all, the promise in Genesis 12 was that through Abraham all the nations in the world will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3). So we are tied in.

What about the reign of Christ over nations? This is not a political military reign; it is a spiritual reign as people from every tribe and nation are brought into subjection to Christ. So in Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see, basically, Israel and the Church as equated spiritually.

One place that you see that Reformed Baptists differ is with pedobaptism. In Presbyterian, Anglican, and the majority of reformed theology, they hold to pedobaptism. Here the same thing is happening; Israel circumcised their people as a sign of the Covenant and we are the new Israel. The difference is that our sign of the Covenant is a sign that is Christological in nature because we have been brought together in Christ; everything in the Old Testament pointed to him. Christ has now come, so the sign of the Covenant changes to baptism as a mark of Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as Israel’s sign of the covenant was given to infants, so the Church’s sign of the Covenant should be given to infants. Honestly, the strongest argument for pedobaptism (in my judgment) is a theological argument; if you try to argue texts, you run out quickly. In a used bookstore in Springfield, Illinois (we were visiting there as a family to look at all of the Lincoln memorabilia that was there), I spotted a rather sizable book on the shelve; the spine was pretty fat. It said on it, All That The Bible Teaches About Infant Baptism. That was the title of it. Wow, I thought, this is a thick book; it is impressive. So I took it off of the shelf and opened it up and it was an empty book. It was just all blank pages. They were charging something like $18 for it, so I didn’t buy it, but I wish I had. I would like to have a copy of that book. The argument is really a theological one: Israel, Church, sense of unity, and hence a very strong case is made on theological grounds for pedobaptism.

One question is: How do they understand a more unified sense of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament when it looks as though in the Old Testament there are these special works with selective people? What they argue, in particular, are primarily theological arguments. These people had to be regenerated. How does regeneration take place? We know from John 3, it must come from the Holy Spirit. So you see how this works; these people exercised faith didn’t they? Where did faith come from? It must have come from the Holy Spirit. So it is a theological argument that utilizes what the New Testament says the Holy Spirit does. It sees those same actions or similar actions in the Old Testament and concluded that Holy Spirit must do these things as well. It is a very important question of how to account for Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. How do you account for a Daniel and a Joseph who exercised tremendous trust in God through very difficult experiences? It is a very good question, and I think that we just have to work very hard in the Old Testament to try to understand what is said there and what is happening there and take seriously the notion that something new takes place. Roman 8:3-4, says, “In order that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Those are remarkable words. Or in Galatians 3 (Galatians 3:24, to be precise) the Law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. It is a tough question; I’ll admit it. I think that are some things that can be said, but it’s why this theological reasoning is persuasive to a number of Reformed people. The problem is so many Old Testament texts indicate the selectivity of the Spirit at work in the Old Testament and then there are specific texts that promise a future day that matches New Testament reality. Ezekiel 36:27 says, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” You read that and realize the holiness that He requires of his people will come about when the Holy Spirit comes and works in them. Think of 2 Corinthians 3:3, the letter written on their hearts by the Spirit. This is New Covenant.

B. Dispensationalism

1. General Description – Progressive Revelation

Dispensationalism is an understanding of the Bible, of biblical history, that notices and points to distinguishable Dispensations or administrations of God’s purposes, will, and relationships with people in general and particularly his people.

The key idea in Dispensationalism is progressive revelation. This is the bottom rock notion in this understanding of reading the Bible. Progressive revelation means, essentially, that God provides revelation at a particular time and that revelation provides certain commandments, requirements, warnings and promises. Some of those commands, warnings, and promises may continue beyond when that revelation is given, beyond the next period when great revelation is given. Or some revelations may stop at that particular point. When new revelation comes with Noah, or then with Abraham, or with Moses (think of these periods where new great revelation is given), some things continue on, and some things continue all the way through. Obey the Lord your God; that is from the beginning right to the end. In the revelation given to Adam in the garden, the command, “You shall not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day you eat of it you will die,” (Gen 2:17) doesn’t apply to you and me anymore, specifically as a commandment. Where is that tree? How could you eat of it? You can’t. So it applies to Adam very much so. When revelation comes, there may be new things that start up that were not here before.

Noah is told that he can eat animals; that is part of the statement made to Noah after the flood. He can eat these animals (Genesis 9), but he cannot kill human beings (I take it that continues). I don’t find vegetarianism theological defensible. Both because of what God says to Noah about eating animals (which I assume continues), and certainly the prohibition of killing humans continues. Nor do you find it defensible in light of Israel, in what they are permitted to eat. And Jesus who pronounced all foods clean is obviously talking about unclean foods, which would include pork. So I guess you can have a bacon or a ham sandwich.

The point is that with progressive revelation, you see some things that are new which continue only for a time, and there are other things that might start, ones that weren’t here before, which continue all the way through, and some things which are just for that time period itself. This, then, amounts to different dispensations, different ways in which God administers his relationship with people. The most obvious example is the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. We now have in this time period these laws that relate to the sacrificial system; and it is clear that they last until Christ comes who fulfills what they are pointing to: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When God’s Lamb comes, then you don’t have to keep taking your lamb to the priest to be slaughtered. When the High Priest reigns, you don’t need a priest any longer. So here we have in this time period laws that are very relevant, extremely relevant, in exact literal detail. Fulfilling those Laws is extremely important in this time period, then when Christ comes they end. You don’t take a lamb; you don’t go to the priest; the priest doesn’t have to prepare himself for the Day of Atonement. All of these things that were there before are done. This is the main idea of Dispensationalism. It is progressive revelation. When revelation comes you need to notice what things have quit what was revealed before, what things start that weren’t revealed before and what things endure. Whatever you come up with in that time period marks that particular dispensation as the revelation of God in that time period.

2. Dispensational Hermeneutic

This notion of progressive revelation has lead Dispensationalist to interpret the Bible, to look at biblical history and interpret where you are in the Bible, very differently than the way Covenant theologians look at the Bible. The tendency in Covenant Theology is to look for uniformity; there is one Covenant of Grace that spans virtually the entire Bible. So there is a tendency to see this uniformity; there is one people of God. In Dispensationalism the mindset is very different. It is instead to notice discontinuity, differences in how God relates to people depending on the revelation that is given at that particular time. It is much more attuned to the discontinuities between various dispensations and to respect those, to be careful not to interpret something in this dispensation as you are reading it from a different time period. So you are not being respectful of what it means here. Charles Ryrie no doubt overstated it in his book, Dispensationalism Today, but he gave this threefold sine qua non (a Latin phrase meaning without which there is none) of Dispensationalism or the essential markings of Dispensationalism. One of them is a literal hermeneutic. He didn’t mean you interpret poetry literally. John kicked the bucket means that John died; that is the way you are supposed to interpret it. He didn’t mean literal in the sense of ignoring metaphorical poetic meanings or terms. What he meant by that is, when reading the Bible, understand what an author intends to say within the historical context of when he is writing it, so that you don’t read back into it things from the future or read forward of things in the past. You take care to read it within its own dispensation. That is what he meant by literal hermeneutic; to understand what the author meant then and there as he spoke at that time.

3. Israel and the Church

A literal hermeneutic has led to, in particular, the way Israel and the Church are evaluated. It is clear in Dispensationalism that Dispensationalists insist upon seeing Israel as Israel and the Church as the Church. There is a strong discontinuity between the two. The Church starts as Christ built it. Remember Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my Church.” Therefore, we shouldn’t talk about it in the Old Testament, even though the term ekklesia is used in the Septuagint (it is not being used in the technical sense, it just means a gathering of people together). We shouldn’t talk about Old Testament Israel as the Church. Jesus said, “I will build my Church, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes” (Acts 1:4), “And when he comes he will anoint you with power” (Acts 1:8). So Pentecost is the beginning of the Church. We shouldn’t talk about Israel as the Old Testament Church nor should we talk about the Church as the New Testament Israel because Israel is an ethnic national group and we are multiethnic; we are multinational. It is confusing to talk of the Church as Israel.

So as it pertains to these promises we talked about under Covenant Theology, what do you do with the Old Testament promises that particularly relate to Israel? How do understand these when God says through the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:24, I will take you from the lands where you have been and bring you back to your land. And he goes on to say at the end of Ezekiel 37 that the Messiah will reign as your king; David will reign as your king. What do you do with these promises that relate to a future for Israel where the Messiah is reigning over his people in the land, the nations are subjected to the Messiah, and there is peace on earth; what do you do with these?

If these promises have to do with Israel, instead of seeing them fulfilled in the Church (because the Church is not Israel), you see them fulfilled at a future time when God will finish his promised work with Israel. There is a sense in which the premillennial view for Dispensationalism is supported because of Old Testament promises to Israel whether or not you have Revelation 20. Revelation 20 is a really nice extra to have because it gives you the exact time period, a thousand years. It makes it crystal clear that this comes after Christ has returned to earth and he reigns upon the earth for this thousand year period. That is nice to know all that, but we didn’t need Revelation 20 to know there had to be a time period in the future after Christ returned for God to finish his work with Israel. Why? Because these promises back here talk about land, Messiah, Jerusalem. According to a literal hermeneutic, what did Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Zachariah mean when they said “Jerusalem”? What did they mean when they said “in your land”? What were the authors intended meanings of these terms: land, Israel, Messiah, and other nations? They understood those things to be referring to physical realities. Have they happened yet? Has Messiah come? No. Is Israel in her land? Hence all the hoopla over 1948; this is when Dispensationalism just went nuts because here we have what appears to be (of course people said it much stronger than that back then) God’s movement to begin the fulfillment of bringing Israel back to her land to fulfill all of these promises. Then there were all kinds of speculation that came in terms of date setting and that kind of stuff.

In my judgment, Dispensationalism has far more merit as a Biblical Theology than its popularizers have allowed it to have in public perception. The popularizers went too far; they extended it into the unknowable. It was speculation but stated as fact. This has hurt the Dispensational movement, in my view.

So for dispensationalists, God is going to come back and wipe out the nations and save Israel, that will happen during the tribulation and he (The Messiah) is going to reign in Jerusalem over his people in the Millennial period fulfilling Old Testament promises.

C. Modifications of both Dispensational and Covenantal Understandings

What has happened, essentially, is that the notions that Israel equals the Church or Israel is totally separate from the Church have been challenged by both representatives in the Covenantal tradition and representatives in the Dispensation tradition. Both have come to see that a better model is one in which there is continuity and discontinuity together. Something like a screen between the two rather than a complete equation or a complete separation of the two. Some things can pass through (hence the screen), yet there are differences between them.

One the Covenant side there has been a recognition, for example, that we really should think of a future for Israel. There was a time when very few Covenant theologians would deal with Romans 11 (Roman 11:17, 23, 24, 26) where Paul talks about the olive tree and the natural branches were cut off and the unnatural branches were grafted on. But a time will come when he will graft the natural branches back on to the tree; that is Israel. That analogy is so helpful. How many trees are there in that analogy? One. How many kinds of branches? Two. Do you have one people of God or two? If you mean one people in Christ, then there is one. If you mean specifically designated Jewish people, for whom God has specifically promised salvation, verses the rest of God’s saved people, then it is two. How else do you understand the natural branches and the unnatural branches? Doesn’t Paul continue to think of the people of God as comprised of Jews and Gentiles? At the moment, most of those Jews are not saved; there is a hardening that has taken place. That is how he describes it in Romans 11. This hardening has taken place, so the Gospel has gone to Gentiles, but the day will come when he will graft the natural branches back on. Who are those people? They are Jews; they are going to be saved. So Paul says, all Israel will be saved. It was difficult for Covenant theologians and Covenant interpreters (a few did but not many) to see that as ethnic Israel. But increasingly in this more modified understanding, you are finding more and more Covenant theologians, people from the Covenant tradition acknowledging that, yes, this is what Paul means; he means that there will be some kind of future salvation of Jews – literal ethnic Jews. Whether this has to happen in the way Dispensationalist conceive it in a tribulation period where vast persecution takes place, tremendous destruction of people and material well-being in everything across the world, and at the same time massive conversions of Jews to Christ, or whether it happens in this age through some kind of evangelistic effort is really beside the point. That is a secondary question. Where there is much more agreement among Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians (in the Modified groups) is that it does look like there is future salvation of Israel.

Dispensationalists have changed. I think it might be fair to say that they have done more changing than the Covenant side. I think that is correct. In other words, Dispensationalists have recognized a bit more that has needed to be changed in their views and tradition than has necessarily been the case in with Covenant theologians.

I will give an example of this. In fact, I have written an article on this in the book that Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising edited entitled, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. I have a chapter in there on the New Covenant. Here is basically what I talk about in there. In the old view for Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing and the Church is another and you can’t mix the two. Here you are, reading your New Testament and you hear Jesus say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25). And Paul says, I am a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). And Hebrews speaks of the Old Covenant is taken away, and the New Covenant has come (Heb 8:13). The New Covenant is the Covenant for the Church, the Old Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, the Covenant for Israel.

What do you do with how Jeremiah 31-34 relates to the New Covenant for the Church, the New Covenant that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3, where he says he is a minister of the New Covenant? How do you relate Jeremiah 31 to that? There is a real problem with that because Jeremiah 31 (Jeremiah 32:31) says, “Behold, days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In traditional Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing, the Church is another and here you have this statement about a new covenant with the house of Israel, so what relation does this Jeremiah 31 New Covenant have to do with the 2 Corinthians 3 New Covenant, of which Paul is a minister? Jesus says, “This cup is the New Covenant of my blood”(Luke 22:20), and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25 repeats that, so what is the relation between the two? The dispensational answer is that they are two separate Covenants. Traditional Dispensationalism had a two New Covenant view. Because Jeremiah 31 had to be for Israel, whatever Paul is talking about, whatever Jesus is talking about, and (here is where it get really messy) whatever Hebrews is talking about has got to be a different covenant.

Now why did I say that, here is where it gets really messy in reference to Hebrews? Because Hebrews 8 and 10 quote Jeremiah 31 twice (Hebrews 8:8,9; 10:16) in making the point that the Old Covenant, the Mosiac Covenant is done away and New Covenant, to quote Jeremiah 31, “has taken its place”. Even despite that, they maintain this difference. This is how strong the theological commitment was to two peoples, Israel and the Church; keep them separate and don’t confuse them. It was so strong that even with Hebrews starring at them quoting Jeremiah 31, they insisted on two different Covenants. The text won with Progressive Dispensationalists (That is what they are called). Craig Blaising, who taught here for years, is one of the main leaders of this movement. He and Darrell Bock at Dallas are the champions of Progressive Dispensationalism. They argue that we have got to say that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 is the Church’ New Covenant. What else would Jesus be referring to? The phrase, New Covenant, is only used one time in the Old Testament; it is in Jeremiah 31. Hebrews quotes it and says the old has passed and this has come in its place. So we have got to understand this is to be the Church’s New Covenant. In my article here is what I proposed: Are we to say then that everything that Jeremiah 31 talks about is fulfilled now in the Church? In other words, should we do this sort of an interpretation of Jeremiah 31; in which we have an Old Testament promise and we draw the arrow straight forward and say Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled in the Church period? I say no. Rather, I think that we draw an arrow forward and we draw an arrow to the future; we draw both. What allows for a “both and” answer? It is both in some sense fulfilled in the Church and in some sense fulfilled in the future. This is the theology of one of the strongest opponents of Dispensationalism: George Eldon Ladd.

Ladd is the one who really faced the evangelical church with this “already not yet” theology. We understand biblical eschatology as being fulfilled in a preliminary partial way, but are still awaiting the complete consummation, complete fulfillment.

This is a different topic; I’ll come back to New Covenant. How do answer the question has the Kingdom of Christ come, or is the Kingdom of Christ here? “Yes but,” or “Yes and no.” Don’t you have to say both? Is the Kingdom of Christ here? Yes, Colossians 1:13 says, We have been transferred from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of his beloved Son. In Matthew 12, Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees said he casts out demons by Beelzebul (Matthew 12:24 ). But he says in response, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). So has the kingdom come? Yes. But what does the New Testament call Satan at various points? The god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the ruler of this world (John 12:13), and the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2). When you read Isaiah 9:6, 7, have you ever asked yourself the question, has this happened? “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on his shoulders; And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And of increase of his government there will be not end to establish it and to uphold it from this day forth and for ever more for the zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” Has this happened? Did you read the paper this morning? Something tells me we are not there yet. This was exactly John the Baptist’s problem. This is huge to get this. John the Baptist in Matthew 11 sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the appointed one or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). This is an incredible question, an unbelievable question. John the Baptist witnessed the dove descend on Jesus (John 1:32), and was told, “The One upon whom you see the dove descend, this is my son; follow him (John 1:33). John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13-16). John the Baptist was the one who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and, “I am not worthy to untie the thong on his sandal” (John 1:27). He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This is John the Baptist who now in prison says, I’m not sure if this is the anointed one. What has happened?

John knows his Old Testament. This is the problem; he knows the promises that relate to the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, guess what the Messiah is going to do? Isaiah 9:6, 7 says he is going to reign over nations. Read the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Incredible devastation to unrighteousness; he is going to destroy those who stand against him; he is going to exalt Israel. Here is the forerunner of the Messiah in prison. What is wrong with this picture? That is what John is thinking. So he thinks, maybe this isn’t the Messiah after all. Consider the angst that he must have been going through in prison, the huge spiritual struggle he must have been facing for that question to come out of him, of all people.

Jesus’ response is brilliant. “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:4, 5). Jesus is quoting Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. So the point is, John, don’t miss it; the Messiah is fulfilling prophecy; I am the Messiah. But not all prophecy, not all now, it is “already and not yet.” Is the kingdom here? Already and not yet. Yes and no, you have to say. Yes, in some things; no, in others.

Back to the New Covenant, how do we see the New Covenant fulfilled? Already in the Church; in some aspects, in a preliminary partial way, we enter into this new covenant, but even a reading of Jeremiah 31 will show that not all of it is fulfilled yet. Because it says, “I will put my Law within you and you won’t have to teach each one his neighbor, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them (Jer 31:33, 34). That hasn’t happened yet. We have teachers in the Church appointed by God to tell people about God, teach them about the Lord. We have the gift of teaching in the Church for that very purpose. So it hasn’t happened yet.

Everyone acknowledges that there has to be an “already not yet.” It includes, in my view, an already in this age predominately gentiles (who were not even given the New Covenant, it was given to Israel) who get in through the seed of Abraham: Jesus. That is our avenue. They get in as Jews, well granted through faith in Christ, they will be brought to faith in Christ, but no other ethnic national group is promised, “I am going to save you.” God promises that to Israel though; they will be saved as a whole ethnic group. Not Babylonians, not Assyrians not anybody else, but Jews will be because God chose them. It is clear in Deuteronomy 7; God chose them, and he is going to save them. When that happens, the New Covenant God made with Israel and Judah is going to be fulfilled. You watch; God will keep his word

Blessings on You.

- See more at: http://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/covenant-theology-dispensationalism/systematic-theology-i/bruce-ware#sthash.NKg0GYoD.dpuf

 

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Tim Keller: 7 Applications of the Gospel in Ministry

Tim Keller seated image

These wonderful excerpts from a sermon on 1 Peter 1:1-12 and 1:22-2:12 were given in “The Spurgeon Fellowship Journal – Spring 2008.” I appreciate the wonderful abilities that Tim Keller has to explain, elucidate, and illuminate on the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is great food for thought here, and wonderful implications for living out the gospel in ministry – enjoy! – Dr. David P. Craig

Tim Keller on Gospel-Centered Ministry

I am here to talk to you about what ministry shaped by the gospel, profoundly shaped by the gospel, really looks like . . .

In this letter, Peter was not writing to the same type of situation Paul addressed in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul was writing into a situation where there were doctrinal fractions, divisions, and party divisiveness . . . Peter was speaking to a persecuted church – a church which was both passively and actively persecuted . . . they were being beset by a culture around them with very different values that they do not know how to relate to. So, of course, you can never divide the doctrinal from the practical issues. However, I would say that Peter here was less concerned about expounding on the content of the gospel as Paul was in 1 Corinthians 15. I’ll show how the gospel should shape the way in which we live, our ministry, and how the church operates as a community.

When I was looking through 1 Peter 1 and 2, I found seven features that Peter uses to describe the gospel . . . Since everything in these seven points has already been explicated in the previous sermon, I am simply going to draw out the implications for ministry. I am going to read a nice long section: 1 Peter 1:1-12, 1:22-2:12. Chapters one and two are remarkable at giving you all the features of the gospel and helping us to understand the ministry implications:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: may grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith— more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. 

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

 “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

I hate to do what I am about to do, which is a “fly-over.” I hate to go by some of these verses. These verses are deep wells, as we know. I know at least three or four men of God who would probably base their entire lives on one or two of these verses. I thought of Ed Clowney as I went by verses 2 and 9. Nevertheless, we are here for an overview. And therefore, I would suggest to you that Peter shows us in these two chapters that there are seven features of the gospel that we have to tease out of the ministry. I will say them here so you can write them down.

The gospel is: (1) historical, (2) doxological, (3) Christocentrical, (4) personal, (5) cultural, to quote Don Carson, (6) “massively transformational,” and (7) wonderful. Each one has a ministry implication.

(1) The gospel is historical . . . The word “gospel” shows up twice. Gospel actually means “good news.” You see it spelled out a little bit when it says “he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Why do we say that the gospel is good news? Some years ago, I heard a tape series I am sure was never put into print by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones. It was an evening sermon series on 1 Corinthians 15. He clarified how the Gospel is based on historical events in how the religion got its start. He said there was a big difference between advice and news. The Gospel, he would say, is good news, but not good advice. Here’s what he said about that: “Advice is counsel about something that hasn’t happened yet, but you can do something about it. News is a report about something that has happened which you can’t do anything about because it has been done for you and all you can do is to respond to it.”

So he says think this out: here’s a king, and he goes into a battle against an invading army to defend his land. If the king defeats the invading army, he sends back to the capital city messengers, envoys, and very happy envoys. He sends back good newsers. And what they come back with is a report. They come back and they say: It’s been defeated and it’s been all done. Therefore respond with joy and now go about your lives in this peace which has been achieved for you. But if he doesn’t defeat the invading army, and the invading army breaks through, the king sends back military advisers and says . . . “Marksmen over here and the horseman over there, and we will have to fight for our lives.”

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones says that every other religion sends military advisers to people. Every other religion says that if you want to achieve salvation, you will have to fight for your life. Every other religion is sending advice saying, “here are the rites, here are the rituals, here’s the transformation of the consciousness and here are the laws and the regulations. Marksmen over here and horsemen over there and we are going to fight for our lives.” We send heralds; we send messengers and not military advisers. Isn’t that clarifying? It’s just incredibly clarifying. And it’s not like there’s nothing to do about it, my goodness. Both the messenger and the military adviser get an enormous response. One is a response of joy and the other one is a response of fear. All other religions give advice and they drive everything you do with fear . . . as you know, when you hear the gospel, when you hear the message that it’s all been done for you, it’s a historical event that has happened, your salvation is accomplished for you, what do you want to do? You

want to obey the Ten Commandments, you want to pray, and you want to please the one that did this for you.

If, on the other hand, military advisers say you have to live a really good life if you want to get into heaven, what do you do? You want to pray and you want to obey the Ten Commandments. It looks the same, doesn’t it? But for two radically different reasons: One is joy and the other one is fear. In the short run, they look alike. But in the long run, over here we have burn out and self-righteousness and guilt and all sorts of problems. And that’s fascinating.

But having said that, what’s the ministry implication? The ministry implication is this: the significance of preaching, of proclamation, of declarative preaching, is irreplaceably central in Gospel ministry. Declarative preaching is irreplaceably central.

Why? If basically we are sending people “how to”, if we are saying here’s the “how to” to live the right way, if that’s the primary message, I am not sure words are necessarily the best thing to send. You want to send a model. If I were to teach an advanced seminar on preaching (and I never have) I would make everybody read CS Lewis’ Studies in Words. It’s amazing because we are wordsmiths and he shows you how important it is to craft your words properly. The last chapter is called “At the Fringe of Language” and he says language can’t do everything. He says that one of the things language cannot do is describe complex operations. On the other hand, when it comes to describing how, to explain to somebody that Joshua Chamberlain, without any ammunition, charged down Little Round Top in an incredible, risky adventure at the height of the Battle of Gettysburg, and as a result changed the course of history. You don’t show people that, you tell them that. It’s something that happened, you describe it. You tell them that. If you are going to give them how-tos, very often what you want is modeling and dialogue, action and reflection and so forth.

Therefore, if you believe the gospel is good news, declarative preaching (verbal proclaiming) will always be irreplaceably central to what we do. However, if you subscribe to the assertion that the gospel is simply good advice on how to live a life that changes people and connects to God . . . dialogue would be alright. Stories and modeling and reflection would be more important. In other words, you would believe what some people would quip: “proclaim the gospel, use words if necessary”. You’ve probably heard that. That shows, I think, that they don’t quite understand what the gospel is all about.

(2) The gospel is Doxological. The purpose of the gospel is not merely forgiveness of individuals, but to bring people to full flourishing through glorious worship. Now where do you see that?

Karen Jobs, in her commentary of 1 Peter, points out what all commentators point out, but I like the way she titled it. Chapter 1 verse 3 to verse 12 is all one sentence in Greek. Therefore, there is a main clause. All that follows are subordinate clauses to the main clause. Here is the main clause: “Praise be to the God and Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”. She entitled the whole section, (and that’s what I like about it), “Doxology and Basis for the Christian Life,” because everything in there, even the new birth, is to the praise of the glory of God. Now why is this so important?

One of the most life-changing and especially ministry-changing things in my life was reading Martin Luther’s “Larger Catechism” a few years ago. In “Larger Catechism,” he lays out his understanding of the Ten Commandments. Luther says that the first commandment is first because (he thinks) all the other commandments are based on it. In other words, when you break any of the commandments two through ten, you have already broken or are in the process of breaking commandment one. So, Martin Luther says you don’t lie unless you have already made something else more than God your functional savior; something else is your greatest joy. Why do you lie? You lie either because the approval of other people is more important than God’s or because money is more than the security you have in God. So you wouldn’t lie unless you already have first made something else more important than God in your life . . . something more fundamental to your meaningless in life or happiness or joy. And then Luther went one step further and said underneath every sin is idolatry in general. And underneath every idolatry in general is always some form of work-righteousness in general, in particular some kind of self-salvation project . . . whenever you make something more important than God, that thing is essentially a savior of your making.

Martin Luther says of the first commandment, you have to believe the Gospel. You can’t look to anything else for your justification . . . you have to believe in the Gospel and you can’t look to anything else for your justification . . . If he were here today, he would say that underneath everything from eating disorders to racism is a self-salvation project, a failure to believe in the Gospel, and is some form of idolatry. You have either made an idol of thinness . . . or of your race and your blood . . . your heart’s imagination is captured. Your heart is essentially adoring and dotting on something other than God . . .

Some years ago . . . I was talking to a young woman, a fifteen year-old girl in my church in Virginia . . . she was really struggling and said this: “I really understand this, I am a Christian. I have clothed myself in the righteousness of Christ, I have a guaranteed place in heaven, and I am the delight of the Father. But what good is that when the boys in high school won’t even look at me?” She was absolutely honest. You might say: is she even a Christian? Of course she was a Christian, as far as I can tell. If I look back on it and she looks back on it, there have been changes. Here’s the point: boys were on video, and God was on audio . . . if you have an audio and video happening at the same time, you know which one wins. Right?

Jonathan Edwards would say that the ultimate purpose of preaching is not just to make the truth clear, but also to make it real. Of course for it to be real, it’s got to be clear. If it’s confused . . . sorry, no worship happens. But you can’t stop there. We are, I think, afraid of the spirit of the age, of subjectivism, because we believe in objective truth. As a result, our expository messages are too cognitive. Jonathan Edwards did not tell stories, he was incredibly rational. But he was also unbelievably vivid. He was incredibly logical, and precise, and clear because he knew that unless the truth is clear, it will never be real. It’s got to be crystal clear, amazingly clear. But it also has to be vivid.

I don’t think this is going to be very easy. I see the narrative preaching approach which works superficially on people’s emotions. And you have a kind of an expository preaching that tends to be like a Bible commentary that works more on the head. But the heart is not exclusively the emotions, and certainly not just the intellect . . . Therefore, the preaching has to be gripping . . .

What I love about Edwards is how incredibly rational he is, how logical and persuasive he is and yet at the same time, so vivid. You go into his messages and there’s the sun, the moon, and the stars. There are mountains and dandelions . . . it’s just astounding . . . he understood that telling stories to tweak the emotions, is like putting dynamite on the face of the rock, blowing it up and shearing off the face but not really changing the life.

One the other hand, if you bore down into it with the truth, and put dynamite in there, if you are able to preach Christ vividly, and you are able to preach the truth practically and you are able to preach it out of a changed life and heart in yourself (which obviously isn’t the easiest thing by any means) then when there is an explosion, it really changes people’s lives. I don’t think we have the right end of the stick in general, either in the movement of the people who are working towards telling stories because they want to get people emotionally or working towards giving people the truth because they want to be sure that people are doctrinally sound.

The Doctor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was not a touchy-feely type . . . based on his understanding of Edwards, he asserts that the first and primary object of preaching is not to give information. It is, as Jonathan Edwards said, to produce an impression. This is the Doctor, now. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. Edwards, in my opinion, understood the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information . . . while you write your notes, you may be missing something that will impact your spirit.

As preachers, we must not forget this. We should tell our people to read books at home and to take notes at home; the business of preaching is to make such knowledge live. Now, by the way, I don’t mind if people are taking notes in my sermons, in the first part of the sermon. But if you are still taking notes at the end of the sermon, I don’t think that I have made it home . . .

Thomas Chalmers puts it like this:

“It is seldom that any of our bad habits or flaws disappear by a mere nature process of natural extinction. At least it is very seldom it is done by the instrumentality of reasoning or by the force of mental determination. What cannot be destroyed however may be dispossessed. One case may be made to give away to another and to lose its power entirely has the reigning affect of the mind. Here’s an example: A youth may cease to idolize sensual pleasure but it is because of the idol of wealth. The desire to make money has gotten ascendancy, so he becomes disciplined. But the love of money might have ceased to be in his heart if he was draw to ideology and politics. Now he is lorded over by the love of power and moral superiority instead of wealth. But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. The human heart’s desire for one particular object is conquered. But its desire to have some object of adoration is unconquerable. The only way to dispossess the heart of all its affection is by the explosive power of a new one. Thus is it not enough to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections, it is not enough to come forth with the demonstration . . . of the character of their enjoyment, it is not enough to just simply speak the conscience, to speak its follies. Rather, you must seek, as a preacher, every legitimate method of finding access to the heart for the love of Him who is greater than the world.”

(3) The gospel is Christocentrical. The gospel, as Don [D.A. Carson] pointed out, in a certain sense, the gospel is just Jesus. What is the gospel? It is who Jesus is and what He did for us. The Gospel is Jesus. Of course, you see this in 1 Peter 1:10 where it says, “About which salvation the prophets sought out and searched out, prophesying concerning the grace for you; searching for what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ made clear within them, testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that should follow.”

What’s intriguing to me is this: reading in Luke and Acts how Jesus got His disciples together during the forty days before He ascended after He was resurrected. What was He doing? I am sure He was doing more than what we are told. But if you look in Luke 24, it looks like He was giving them a New Testament hermeneutical seminar. This should give professors a lot of hope . . . even Jesus thought running a seminar on hermeneutics was a good idea! If he was running them in those forty days, maybe it is a good idea to run them now. Basically, He was saying that everything in the Old Testament points to Him . . .

He told Cleopas and the other disciples on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room that everything in the Prophets and the Psalms and the Law points to Him. It’s intriguing, we see that in Luke and now here in 1 Peter we have an echo of it. Peter was in on that seminar . . . now he is explaining that concerning this salvation, the salvation of the gospel of Christ, the Prophets had the Holy Spirit in them pointing them towards Jesus . . . Peter is saying what Jesus was saying . . . that everything pointed towards Jesus. Every text in the Old Testament was pointing toward Jesus.

Now my ministry implication is this: The basic subject of every sermon ought to be Jesus, regardless of what passage is at hand. It doesn’t matter whether it is Old or New Testament; it’s got to be about Jesus. By the way, you might say this is only about Old Testament hermeneutics; no, you need to know that my friend Sinclair Ferguson says most evangelical ministers don’t preach Christ. Not only do they not preach Christ in the Old Testament . . . they don’t preach Christ in the New Testament. I will get back to this in a second.

I know this is somewhat of an internal debate here and I’ve got to be careful. I don’t want to be a party guy and say, “I follow Chapell, or I follow Goldsworthy.” And you know there are people who say that you preach everything in the Bible pointing to Jesus and there are other good men that just don’t think that’s right. You shouldn’t preach Christ from Jacob wrestling with God . . . you should preach about wrestling with God in prayer or suffering or something like that. Honestly, I believe those good and sincere men are wrong on the basis of reading the Bible and the understanding of hermeneutics and so on.

But part of this goes back, I remember, some years ago, to when I sat down with my wife. You know what that’s like – on the way home – after the sermon. First you are hoping she will say: “Great sermon, honey.” But if she doesn’t say anything, you fear the worst. I remember one day we really got into it. I said, “Let me ask you, how often do you think it was a great sermon? How many weeks out of the month?” And she said “no more than one in every four or five weeks.” So, we sat down and here’s what she said: “For a good part of your sermon, your sermons are great. They are rational and biblical, and they are exegetical. They show me how I should live, and what I should believe. But every so often – suddenly at the end – Jesus shows up. And when Jesus shows up, it suddenly becomes not a lecture but a sermon for me, because when you say this is what you ought to do, I think to myself, ‘I know, I know, okay. Now I am a little clearer about it and I am a little more guilty about it. Fine.’ But sometimes you get to the place where you say, ‘This is what you ought to do, though you really probably can’t do it; but there is one who did. And because He did it on our behalf, and because He did it in our place, we believe in Him. We will begin to be able to do it.’” This is true only to the degree that we understand what He did for us. And she says: “That’s different. One time out of four or five, your lecture becomes a sermon when Jesus shows up and I want to do that. I have hope. And I begin to see how I can do it.”

I really didn’t understand . . . but basically, now I do. Here’s the thing. Your preaching will never be doxological and it won’t be central unless it is Christocentric. Here’s why: if you tell people they need to be generous, and ask why they aren’t being more generous . . . I happen to know about people being generous. Sometimes you don’t know about the lust in someone’s heart week to week, but you know if people are being generous week to week.

Why aren’t people being more generous? Are they just being sinners? Let’s go back to Martin Luther. Let’s go back to the catechism. If you are not being generous, then there is something going on there, is there not? You are saying your status or your security, which is based on money, is very important to you. You need to be able to buy certain cloths and live in certain circles and go to certain places. Human approval, security, there’s idols underneath the lack of generosity. The money is more than just money. It’s security, it’s significance, it’s status. You’ve got to make more money, and then you will give it away.

How do you do that? You have to show that Jesus Christ is their true wealth. You have to show them what their idols are. You have to get to Jesus. As a result, if you don’t get there, you are going to find that you are wailing on people’s wills. You are beating on wills. Sinclair Ferguson wrote a book . . . called Preaching Christ in the Old Testament. And this is what he says: Not only do most ministers not preach Christ in the Old Testament; they don’t preach Christ from the New Testament. The preacher has looked into the text, even in the New Testament, to find himself and the congregation . . . not to find Christ. You can do this even in the New Testament, in the Gospels. The sermon, therefore, is consequently about the people in the Gospels and not the Christ in that Gospel. The more fundamental issue is this question: What is the Bible really about? Is the Bible basically about me and what I must do or is it about Jesus and what He has done? Is the Bible about the objective and indicative?

Here’s an example. Hermeneutics is important. You can’t just find Jesus in every little twig. And there needs to be a way where you are following the trajectory of the text no matter what that text is to Jesus. You have to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of that particular trajectory of the text. You’ve got to be responsible. And yet, like Sinclair said, it’s more like an instinct. It’s not so much just the right hermeneutical principles; it’s an instinct. Do you believe the Bible is basically about you or basically about Him? Is David and Goliath basically about you and how you can be like David and Goliath or about Him, the One that took on the only giants in life who can kill us? You see. And His victory is imputed on us. Who is this all about? That’s the fundamental question.

And when that happens, you start to read the bible anew. Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden. His garden is a much tougher garden and his obedience is imputed on us. Jesus is the true and better Abel, who though innocently slain has blood that cries out: not for our condemnation but for our acquittal. Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answers the call of God, who leaves all the familiar comforts of the world into the void, not knowing where He went. Jesus is the true and better Isaac who is not only offered by his father on the mount but who was truly sacrificed for us all. While God said to Abraham: “Now I know you truly love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.” Now we, at the foot of the cross, can say to God: “Now we know you love us because you did not withhold your Son, your only Son, whom you love, from us.”

Jesus is the true and better Jacob, who wrestled and took the blows of justice that we deserved so we like Jacob only receive the wounds of grace that wake us up and disciple us. Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who is at the right hand of the king, and forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his power to save them. Jesus is the true and better Moses, who stands in the gap between the people and the LORD and mediates the new covenant. Jesus is the true and better rock of Moses who struck with the rod of God’s justice now gives us water in the desert. Jesus is the true and better Job, He is the truly innocent sufferer who then intercedes for and saves His stupid friends. Is that a type? That’s not typology. That’s an instinct.

Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory becomes the people’s victory even though they didn’t lift a stone to accomplish it themselves. Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but lost ultimately the heavenly one, who didn’t just risk His life but gave His life, who didn’t say if I perish I perish but when I perish, I perish for them . . . to save my people. Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so we can be brought in. He’s the real Passover Lamb; He’s the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the true lamb, the true life, the true bread. The Bible is not about you. And that’s an instinct.

Until that shows up in your sermons, it will be lectures and not sermons. It won’t be doxological, it won’t be central.

(4) The gospel is personal and individual. Don [D.A. Carson] already said this. In 1 Peter 1 and 2, we see a lot of references to the new birth. What does the new birth mean – think about the metaphor of the birth – you can’t make yourself a Christian? You can make yourself a Buddhist. You can make yourself a Muslim. You can make yourself an Atheist. But you can’t make yourself a Christian. To become a Christian, you have to be converted . . . notice that’s a passive. You don’t convert yourself, something happens to you. Through faith you’re born again. You are confronted with you sin in front of a holy and jealous God. And you see the provision. Now, that’s individual conversion. This is very important, at this moment, in all our lives as Christians, especially in North America, but I am sure in other places as well. There is an erosion in the confidence of the thing that I just said. It is the idea that we have sinned against a holy and jealous God, the wrath of God has to be satisfied, Jesus Christ stood in our place, substitutionary atonement is provided, and when we believe in this, both in His suffering and obedience is imputed to us . . .

J.I. Packer, in his little chapter on grace in Knowing God, said there are two things you have to know in order to understand the concept of grace. Grace isn’t the opposite of Law. First of all, you have to understand how lost you are, how bad you are, how dire your condition is, and how big the debt is. You have to understand that . . .

Now if somebody says, “I believe Jesus died for me, He shed His blood for me and I have given my life to Christ. I accepted Him; I walked forward and invited Him into my life,” but you don’t see any change in that person’s life, you don’t see identify shifting, behavior transformation and joy, what’s the problem? It’s clear that this person doesn’t understand the size of the debt, and therefore the size of the payment . . . Jim Packer used to say to understand grace, and for grace to be transforming, first you have to understand the debt.

The second thing you have to understand, besides the size of the debt, is the magnitude of the provision. There are people who do understand that they are pretty bad. They do understand how flawed they are. They do understand how far short they fall. But they aren’t convinced of the magnitude, sufficiency, freeness, and fullness of the provision. They may only believe that Jesus died the death that we should have died. And maybe they also don’t believe Jesus lived the life that we should have lived . . . And you also see Pharisees – people who are really under the burden of guilt. As a result, they are withdrawn and hostile and moralistic and legalistic. And we look at these two groups of people and the evangelical world is filled with them. Easy-Believeism is really deadly. The Cost of Discipleship book by Bonhoeffer explains why Easy-Believeism was the reason Nazism could come into power. That’s pretty dangerous. Why Easy-Believesim? Why the Moralism? Because they don’t understand the gospel; the old gospel, the historic gospel. The gospel of salvation by grace through faith and the work of Jesus Christ alone, and substitutionary atonement . . . they don’t get it.

So what’s the solution to all the Easy-Believeism? Why is it that we don’t have people living the life they ought to live? Why do we see people culturally withdraw, being really negative and narrow? Because people think the solution is “let’s change the gospel” . . . I can’t imagine that anybody is going to write a hymn that goes like this: “my chains fell off and my heart was free, I rose forth and followed thee.” It’s just not going to happen . . .

(5) The gospel is cultural. What do I mean by cultural? The gospel creates a culture called The Church. It’s not just an aggregation of saved individuals. It’s a culture. The gospel is so different in what it says about God, you, and your standing with God. It’s so identity transforming; every other religion or system motivates you through fear and pride to do the right thing. Only the gospel motivates you through joy . . . the fear and trembling joy . . . the fear of God joy. That doesn’t mean that now we are a bunch of saved individuals with wonderful internal fulfillment. It means that when we get together we want to do things differently. We will do everything differently. The gospel is massively transformational and it creates a counter culture but it also makes us as people relate to the culture around us. And this comes out especially in 1 Peter 2. I will be brief on this but it’s crucial.

Those of us who believe in that individual gospel often miss the communal aspects of the gospel. And in 1 Peter 2:12, he says “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Right before this, he says, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers.” In 1 Peter 1:1, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world.” There’s been a lot of discussion about this. There’s pretty much a consensus. The word “strangers” there means not a tourist who’s just passing through the world briefly, but not a citizen of the world either. Somebody who’s going to be there a long time whose true citizenship and value belongs somewhere else.

Peter makes an amazingly balanced statement and we have to understand this. The gospel, I believe, is radical. The nature of the gospel, on the one hand, does say “you need to engage” to the legalists who are afraid to be polluted by the culture and have the tendency to bolster their fragile sense of righteousness by feeling superior to the sinners around them. On the other hand, the gospel also confronts the secular, irreligious, liberal Christian, who asserts that we really can’t believe in sin or the holiness of God and hell because it offends people.

The gospel says that there are dangers on both sides: cultural accommodation, culture withdrawal. Most of us as Christians today think that most of the dangers today are on one side. We tend to get together with a group of people and say: the main danger, the main danger today is cultural accommodation. On the other side, there are Christians who think the main danger is cultural isolation and irrelevance. No one will see the good deeds of those who withdraw from the world and just hate the world. They don’t glorify God. They are not involved with caring for the poor; they are not engaged. On the other hand, people who accommodate the culture are never persecuted. How do we know that the radical gospel is turning us into a counter-culture for the common good? This counter-culture should be distinct, very different from the side we have inside of us, but a side that shows that we love the world and care about the world. We love our enemies because we are saved by a man who died loving His enemies.

Therefore, this balance is awfully hard to maintain. In Jeremiah 29, the exiles, wanted to stay outside of Babylon and remain pure. The Babylonians wanted to come in to Babylon, and lose their cultural identity. God told them through Jeremiah to do the hardest thing possible. In a sense, He said, “I don’t want you to stay out and be different. I don’t want you to go in and become like them. I want you to go deeply in and stay very different.” And that’s exactly what 1 Peter is talking about. Peter calls them exiles. He knows that the relationship with the culture around them has to be the same relationship as the Jewish exiles had with the Babylonians. We need to seek the welfares of the city. We need to care about that. We need to follow in the footsteps of the one who serves His enemies and forgave His enemies and died for His enemies.

At the same time, we have to be telling people that they are going to hell. Now, generally speaking, by and large, the people who want to be prophetic don’t want to be priestly. The people that want to talk about going to hell do not just sacrificially pour out themselves and say we are going to love you and we are going to serve you, whether you really like what we do or not. And the people who are serving like that are afraid of talking about things like hell or wrath. I don’t know whether we can become a movement of people who understand what 1 Peter is saying: that the gospel creates a counter culture, but a culture that engages the community around us at the expense of persecution . . .

New Yorkers love what the Bible says about forgiveness and reconciliation and caring about the poor. They hate what it says about sex and gender and family. Go on to the Middle East and find people who love what the Bible says about sex and gender and family, but abhor the idea of forgiving people, 70 times 7. I think what 1 Peter 2:12 is trying to say is in every single culture, if you actually live distinctively in an engaged way, you will get persecution AND you will get approval. It will always be different depending on the culture. You will attract people, you will influence people. You will be salt and light and at the same time you will get punched in the mouth.

If you are only getting punched in the mouth, or if you are only getting praise, you are not living the gospel life. Either you are falling into legalism and withdrawal or you are falling into accommodation.

(6) The gospel is massively transformational. When I say the gospel is massively transformational, I am just saying the gospel creates a worldview, a basis of worldview that actually touches every area of life; the way you do business, the way you do art, the way you conduct your family life. What do I mean when I say the gospel is wonderful? 1 Peter 1:12, “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

Angels love to look into the gospel. They never get tired of it. So what does that mean? It means gospel ministry is endlessly creative. It means you can preach the gospel and never have to be afraid of boring people . . .

(7) The gospel is wonderful. Isn’t that amazing? The gospel is not the ABC’s of Christianity, it’s A to Z. It’s not just the elementary and introductory truths. The gospel is what drives everything that we do. The gospel is pretty much the solution to every problem. The gospel is what every theological category should be expounding when we do our systematic theology. It should be very much a part of everything.

Even angels long to look into it. And you should. Let’s pray.

About Dr. Tim Keller: He was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of a study of Mark entitled King’s Cross; The Prodigal God based on Luke 15; The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness; Generous Justice; Counterfeit Gods; Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho RoadThe Meaning of Marriage; a wonderful small group study entitled Gospel In Life; and the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God; & the forthcoming Center Church (August 2012). Tim has a passion for Jesus Christ, making the Gospel clear, church planting, and reaching cities for Christ. If you really want to understand the gospel, and how grace applies to all of life I urge you to devour his books and sermons!

 

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Book Review on Phil A. Newton’s “Elders in the Life of the Church”

Transitioning to A Biblical Model of Leadership

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Book Review By Dr. David P. Craig

It’s been my experience that most churches are way off base in their leadership structures. In light of what the New Testament says about leadership in the churches this is difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless Phil Newton has done a great service to the 21st Century church by providing an introductory guide to developing a biblical infrastructure for churches that take being biblically based and effective seriously.

Newton divides his helpful book into three sections:

Part One is composed of answering the question: Why Churches Should have Elders. In Part Two Newton exposits  three key texts on how Elders functioned in the New Testament: Acts 20:17-31; Hebrews 13:17-19; and 1 Peter 5:1-15. In giving a thorough exposition of each passage he demonstrates how Elders are models for their congregations; how Elders and the congregation work together in harmony; and how their primary calling is to be spiritual leaders for the good of the congregation and God’s greater glory.

In my opinion the most helpful section of the book is in part three. In this section Newton shows how a leadership team can transition into a fully functioning Elder Leadership in the Church with Deacons as well. All four examples are of large Baptist churches going from a Diaconate Board to two separate functioning boards of Elders and another of Deacons.

Giving a step-by-step process Newton shares from personal experience [South Woods Baptist Church] and from the experience of other well-known ministries (Mark Dever’s [Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.], Jeff Noblit [First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama], and John Piper’s [Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.] transitions from Deacon Board structures to adding Elders into the mix). The process is slow, methodical, and takes into consideration traditions, a thorough study of biblical passages on leadership, and how the principles are studied and bandied about in teams. The process for the four cases studied is very helpful to keep in mind no matter what background your church has, and where it’s at in the transitional process.

I think this is an excellent book for leadership teams to study and for pastors, staffs, deacons, and elders to use in seeking to become as biblically effective as possible in seeking to develop a healthy infrastructure for the good of the Church and the glory of God. What I especially like about Newton’s book in particular is that he doesn’t impose any particular church government upon a church, but allows the Bible to speak for itself. He encourages a thorough study of the biblical evidence in arriving at one’s model of church government. I highly recommend this book as an extremely helpful guide in leading one toward a more biblical model of church government.

 

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Tim Keller on Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World: Adoring Christ – Communion with God

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Personal Notes from a Tim Keller Lecture

As people adore Christ they will apply Christ.

The best way to lead people to worship is to worship Christ yourself during the sermon.

George Whitefield agreed to having his sermons printed but said ‘you’ll never get the thunder’.

The sermon is what you write

Preaching is the active delivery of the preaching

The spiritual quality and character of the person shines through during preaching more than the sermon itself.

Keep in your mind the differences between graces and gifts. You can be using gifts without being godly.

The fruit of the Spirit is character change. The gifts of the Spirit are skills or abilities.

People often assume that skill or gifts indicates Spiritual gifts with spiritual fruit is like a tire without air.

When you’re far from God

Traditions:

Sacramental: meeting God in the sacraments and traditions

Evangelical: meeting God in your quiet times

Charismatic: emphasis on meeting God in corporate worship

The Puritans were bigger on experiencing God compared with other reformed evangelicals today.

MLJ (Martyn Lloyd-Jones) was on a farm trying to pray and couldn’t pray. Looked at the word glory in an AW Pink book and felt God’s glory for a couple of hours. He then looked back at the Puritans and saw these themes were present in there writings.

Meditation is the overlap between prayer and Bible study. Read and meditate on scripture until your heart gets hot, then move on to pray.

Bible reading should be a slow and careful reading of scripture. Give yourself time to meditate on truths you haven’t enjoyed before. Listen to God’s voice and enjoy the truth.

In meditation you take parts that have impressed you from the Bible reading and think about how this helps you to:

1) adore God

2) confess sin

3) petition to grace

Good structure for quiet times:

Listen to God through the Word

Reflect on what He is saying

Respond by speaking to Him

Sense and enjoy His grace

Meditation is truth with you left in it. What is this truth saying to me? What would happen if I were living in light of this?

The minds must descend into the heart. To hunger for God and not eat is better than not to be hungry.

Contemplation is the witness of the Spirit telling us that we are children of God.

Mini sermon on John 2

The first of Christ’s miraculous signs is featured in John 2 when he turns water into wine. When you go to a web page you want the content of that page to get straight to the point, you want to find out the essence of that page straight away. Christ shows hi heart and essence in the performance of His first miracle.

What is Christ doing? He’s not healing anyone. He’s taking a party and restoring it.

a) What did He come to bring?

Christ came to be lord of the feast. Verse 10 is talking about the master of the banquet. His job was to make sure that the party went well. Christ kept the party going by making 150 gallons of the best wine. Christ is saying I’m the real master of the banquet. I can bring taste and experience and fullness of life.

Why does the Bible talk about tasting? Psalm 34: ‘taste and see’. God wants you to experience Him- He wants your senses. There’s a difference between knowing God’s holiness and feeling His holiness. Jesus Christ wants you to know the sweetness of God.

He is the master of the banquet. He wants to come into your life and bring sweetness.

b) How does He bring this?

Mary says ‘We’ve run out of wine?’ Jesus responds: ‘Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.’ He is not referring to his time of miracles. He is referring to the hour of His death. Jesus is thinking of His wedding. He is thinking of His wedding feast.

How is Christ going to give you incredible sensation? He dies to give you Himself. To purchase the wedding feast He had to be slaughtered.

Christ adores His bride. Jesus feel ravished when He sees us. He came to give us festival joy by dieing so that we would be His bride.

Applied to non-Christians:

1) Admit you’re out- admit you’re empty, devoid of goodness.

2) Take the credit for what He’s done- love me and praise me because Jesus is lovely and praiseworthy

Applied to prayer:

1) Pray for small things – Christ was willing to use divine time for small things

2) Learn patience prayer – pray yourself patient

3) Get perspective on Christ’s wedding day. There’s only one spouse that awaits you and He will fulfill you- He’s waiting for you if you believe in Him.

4) Presence prayer- He wants to come into your life and give you wine. Don’t settle for bread and water- you’re missing the feast!

 

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Tim Keller – Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World: Adoring Christ: Spiritual Reality

Personal Notes from a Lecture by Dr. Tim Keller

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The goal of the sermon is to get people to worship Jesus.

A sermon isn’t a sermon until you call people to adore Christ. A sermon is a lecture when Christ is not adored.

Willow Creek approach: ‘You can evangelize non-Christians or edify Christians’

Conservative approach: ‘All people need to worship through the same material’

If you preach Christ you’ll be evangelizing and edifying at the same time.

Post-modern people like to know how Christianity works.

PM people try on Christianity as a dress. They’ll try it out to see if it works.

You can only change a person’s life by changing what they worship and how they worship.

Text, Context and Subtext

Be clear about the text, context and subtext

1) The text: know what the text is saying. Be clear on theology

2) The context: know how to present the text to the people

3) The subtext: have the right heart for the text (Christ) and the right heart for the context (people)

4 types of subtext

1) Social Reinforcement

The purpose of the sermon is to say: ‘Aren’t we great’

The preacher builds community and belonging by using familiar language and over endorsing the goodness of the church

‘We’re here to remind ourselves that we are unique people’

2) Selling

Promotion the products of the church

‘Don’t you feel that this is a great church’?

‘See how worthy I am of your respect’

The sermon is trying to give teaching to win people over to the individual church

3) Training

The purpose of my sermon is to teach people things they don’t know

‘I want to inform you of things you don’t know’

4) Worship

This subtext points to Christ and says ‘Isn’t He great?’

‘Don’t you see that your problems are rooted in that you don’t worship Christ?’

Spiritual Reality and Edwards

Religious Affections by Jonathon Edwards:

We have always done what we wanted to do.

Edwards argued that there is no ultimate opposition between head and heart. The heart always leads the will to act. Actions are grounded in emotions- always!

‘I know God cares for me but I can’t help but feel unloved.’ Edwards would say ‘You clearly don’t know that God cares for you. You haven’t felt that reality. Once you feel that God cares you’ll act as if God cares.’

Acting directly on the will doesn’t really work. We need to aim for the heart.

If someone is not being generous it’s due to sinful emotions. It’s because their hearts find something more attractive than Christ. Once people really see and feel 2 Cor 8:9 giving becomes frequent and a happy experience!

Sensing Christ only way to motivate the will. The task of the preacher is to present the beauty of Christ so that He becomes the object of our hearts greatest affection. Presenting Christ as more excellent than everything will weaken the Christians love for things other than Christ.

‘Excellency is that which is appreciated and rested in for its own sake.’- Edwards

The nominal Christian is someone who finds grace useful to get the things that the heart finds excellent and beautiful. Christ should not be the means to the end. He is the end!

Spiritual reality is more than rational conviction.

TWO-fold knowledge of good according to Edwards:

1) That which is notional- understanding something rationally

2) That which is pleasing to the heart- delighting in Him

You can rationally know that honey is sweet without feeling it. You can’t feel that honey is sweet unless you rationally know it’s sweet.

5 tips for heart preaching

1) Use reason- be clear and logical

2) Use analogical illustrations- relate the truth to another discourse. Doing this engages the senses

3) Use narrative- use stories

4) Transfer the affections of the people from sin to Christ- show that sin is not satisfying- show people that Christ’s beauty satisfies

5) Worship as you preach- show the people that you are sensing Christ – taste the food that you’re feeding to the children

Our problem: we forget spiritual knowledge.

2 Peter 1:8-9 is not talking about someone who has forget that they are saved. Rather the Christian here is not being continuously refreshed with Christ.

Video is more attractive than audio. The Bible sometimes can go straight to audio- it is heard and not fully experienced. We need to see Christ on video – this is to experience Him.

We worship when we treasure God- when we find Him more beautiful than anything else.

 

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Tim Keller: Preaching the Gospel in a Postmodern World: Session 7 Notes

GETTING DOWN TO EARTH: PART III

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Preaching and Pastoring on Idols – BY DR. TIM KELLER

INTRODUCTION

‘Idolatry’ is a major theme for ‘what ails’ us. It is there all through the Bible as a or the unifying way to describe what is wrong with us—psychologically, intellectually, sociologically, and culturally. But again, the word itself is fairly rare in the NT, but once we get a beat on some key texts and some key words, we will see how pervasive concept is. And if it is the main way to understand what is wrong with us—a pastor, a physician of souls, can’t possibly ignore it.

A. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY – OLD TESTAMENT

The whole story of the Bible—at least in the OT, can be seen as a struggle between true faith and idolatry.

1. In the beginning—idolatry

In the beginning, human beings were made to 1) worship and serve God, and then 2) to rule over all created things in God’s name (Genesis 1:26-28). Instead, we “fell into sin”. But when Paul sums up the “fall” of humanity into sin, he does so by describing it in terms of idolatry. He says we refused to give God glory (i.e. to make him the most important thing) and instead chose certain parts of creation to glorify in his stead. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God…and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator” (Romans 1:21-25). In short, we reversed the original intended order. Human beings came to 1) worship and serve created things, and therefore 2) the created things came to rule over them. Death itself is the ultimate emblem of this, since we toil in the dust until finally the dust rules us (Gen. 3:17-19).

2. The Law—against Idols

The great sin of the Mosaic period is the making of a golden calf (Exodus 32). The 10 commandments’ first two and most basic laws (one-fifth of all God’s law to humankind) against idolatry. 1st command is a prohibition against worshipping other gods; the 2nd command is  prohibition against worshipping God idolatrously, as we want him to be. And after God’s entire code of covenant behavior is given in Exodus 2—23, it ended with a summary warning not to make “a covenant with…their gods” (v. 32) lest they “snare you” (v. 33). So “idolatry” sums up all that God’s law is against. Just like Romans 1, Exodus does not envision any “third” option. We will either worship the uncreated God, or we will worship some created thing (an idol). There is no possibility of our worshipping nothing. We will “worship and serve” (Romans 1:25) something, and whatever we worship we will serve, for worship and service are always, inextricably bound together. Whatever most drives us is rooted in worship and whatever we worship drives us. Why? We are “covenantal” beings. We enter into covenant service with whatever most captures our imagination and heart. It “snares” us. Therefore every human personality, every human community, and every human thought-form will be based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance to something.

3. The Psalms—Praying against idols

In the Psalms, the adoration of the people is not only toward God, but also against idols. Psalm 24:3-4—“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol”…The “kabod” or glory of God is, quite literally, his weightiness, his supreme importance. But idols are good things which get more glory in our eyes than God. Therefore we cannot give God worship unless we identify and remove the idols of our heart. This theme is so crucial to John Calvin in his effort to renew worship biblically that his whole theology of worship has been called “the war against idols’.

4. The Prophets—Polemic against idols

Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, leveled an enormous polemic against the worship of idols. a) First, an idol is empty, nothing, powerless. The idol is nothing but what we ourselves have made, the work of our own hands (Is. 2:8; Jer. 1:16). Thus an idol is something we make in our image. It is only, in a sense, worshipping ourselves, or a reflection of our own sensibility (Is. 44:10-13). It has no ability or power of its own (Is. 41:6,7); it will eventually rot (Is. 40:20); b) But second, (paradoxically) an idol is a spiritually dangerous power which saps you of all power. This is a triple paradox. Idols are powerless things that are all about getting power. But the more you seek power through them, the more they drain you of strength.

(1) First, the idol brings about terrible spiritual blindness of heart and mind (Is. 44:9, 18). The idolater is self-deluded through a web of lies (Isaiah 44:20). When we set our ‘worship apparatus’ in our hearts upon something smaller than the true God, it produces a ‘delusional field’ which causes us to live in deep denial of the truth and reality. We deny how important the idol really is to us, yet we deny how impotent the idol really is. Also, we deny the bad effects it is having on us.

(2) Second, the idol brings about slavery. Jeremiah likens our relationship to idols as a love addicted person to his or her lover (Jer. 2:25). Once we have come to believe that something will really make us happy, then we cannot help ourselves—we must follow our God. Idols poison the heart into complete dependence on it (Isaiah 44:17); they completely capture our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-5).

Sum: So the OT is understood as a grid of idolatry. God is king, but we tried to keep control and power worshipping and serving created things. They in turn, set up a kingdom of darkness that blinds and enslaves. The prophets say that someday, the King will return and free us. But we can’t read the NT through the grid of idolatry, can we? If is seldom mentioned. And moreover, idolatry is not relevant at all for us today, is it?

B. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY – NEW TESTAMENT

It is typical to think that “idolatry” is mainly an OT phenomenon, but closer examination shows that it is not. A couple of texts provide clues to the fact that pervasive human idolatry was assumed by the New Testament writers.

1 John 5:21

The last verse of 1 John is: “Beloved, keep yourself from idols”. Now idolatry has not been mentioned by John by name once in the entire treatise. So we have to conclude one of two things, Either 1) he is now, in the very last sentence, changing the whole subject (perhaps as an afterthought, but then he does nothing to elaborate or explain his meaning at all)! Or 2) he is summarizing all he has been saying in the epistle about living in the light of (holiness), love, and truth. I think the latter is more reasonable—but the implications are significant. John, in one brief statement, is putting in the negative what he had spent the whole letter putting in the positive. This must mean that the only way to walk in holiness, love, and truth is to keep free from idols. They are mutually exclusive. Under any failure to walk in holiness is some form of idolatry.

Galatians 4:8-9

In these two verses Paul reminds the Galatians that they had once been enslaved “to those who by nature are not gods. But…how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?” I know that “stoichea” referred to here are much debated, and I won’t go into them here. But it seems safe to assume that Paul is saying: don’t go back to idolatry. But wait! The Galatians may have once been idolaters in the sense of worshiping figures of metal and wood. But the danger in Galatians is following those who are telling them to be circumcised and who are trying to lure them into a biblical moralism, and clouding their understanding of justification by faith alone. So how can he talk of this as a return to idolatry? The implications are again significant. If anything but Christ is your justification—you are falling into idolatry. If you sacrifice to a statue, or seek to merit heaven through conscientious biblical morality—you are setting up something besides God as your ultimate hope and it will enslave you.

1. Idolatry is at the root of all sin—in fact, it is the only way to understand sin.

Galatians 4:8-9 sheds light on the classic text of Romans 1:18-25. This extensive passage on idolatry is often seen as only referring to the pagan Gentiles, but instead we should recognize it as analysis of what sin is and how it works.

v. 21 tells us that the reason we make idols is because we want to control our lives, though we know that we owe God everything. “Though they knew God, they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him.”

v. 25 tells us the strategy for control—taking created things and setting our hearts on them by building our lives around them. Since we need to worship something, because of how we are created, we cannot eliminate God without creating God-substitutes.

vv. 21 and 25 tells us the two results of idolatry: (1) deception—“their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened” and (2) slavery—“they worshipped and served” created things. Whatever you worship you will serve.

No one grasped this better than Martin Luther, who ties the OT and NT together remarkably in his exposition of the 10 commandments. Luther saw how the OT law against idols and the NT emphasis on justification by faith alone are essentially the same. He said that the Ten Commandments begin with two commandments against idolatry. Then comes commandments three to ten. Why this order? It is because the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. In other words, we never break commandments 3-10 without first breaking 1-2. But why would this be? Luther understood that the first commandment is really all about justification by faith, and to fail to believe in justification by faith is idolatry, which is the root of all that displeases God.

“All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, obedience, patience, and chastity of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them…If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…(Part X. XI) Excerpts from Martin Luther, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).

Here Luther says that failure to believe God accepts us fully in Christ—and to look to something else for our salvation—is a failure to keep the first commandment, namely, having no other gods before him. To try to earn your own salvation through works-righteousness is breaking the first commandment. Then he says that we cannot truly keep any of the other laws unless we keep the first law—against idolatry and works-righteousness. Thus beneath any particular sin is this sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.

Sum: The Bible does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and thus not a very rare sin only among primitive people). Rather, the only alternative to true, full faith in the living God is idolatry. All our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are due at root to idolatry—something we make more important than God. There is always a reason for a sin. Under our sins are idolatrous desires.

2. Idolatry is at the root of every heart—it is the only way to understand motivation

There is another word that is very common in the NT which has a strong link to the idea of idolatry. Once we make this connection, we can see an even deeper link between the NT concept of the heart and idolatry.

“If ‘idolatry’ is the characteristic and summary OT word for our drift from God, then ‘lust’ [inordinate desires], epithumiai is the characteristic and summary NT word for that same drift. (See summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Gal. 5:16ff; Eph. 2:3, 4:22; 1 Pet. 2:11, 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14ff, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.) The tenth commandment [against ‘coveting’, which is idolatrous, inordinate desire for something]…also…makes sin ‘psychodynamic’. It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes in Romans 7…the NT merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires…for lust, demandingness, craving and yearning are specifically termed ‘idolatry’ (Eph. 5:5 and Col. 3:5).” – David Powlison in Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair

The author explains here how idolatry moves us to disobedience and sin. He says that unless we believe the gospel and look to the Lord for our salvation, we will look to some idol, and idolatry always leads to ‘overdesires’. For example, if we believe we will only be significant if we make a lot of money, we will be in the grip of an over-desire, “drivenness”, to succeed in our work.

This is why we can say that beneath the breaking of any commandment is the breaking of the first. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in an idol rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. Therefore, in sin we are always ‘forgetting’ what God has done for us in Christ and instead are being moved by some idol.

This is also why the word “epithumia” (for idolatrous, inordinate desires) shows up in all the NT places that treat Christian character, such as the “fruit of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22ff.). It is possible to have a Pharisaical or superficial compliance with God’s law, but out of works-righteousness. This is obedience to the rules, but out of false motives and bad heart-character.

“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” – Belgic Confession 24

The Belgic Confession here states that unless we believe the gospel, we will be driven in all we do—whether obeying or disobeying—by pride (“self-love”) or fear (“of damnation”). We may be obeying God, but we will be only seeking to manipulate him—get blessing from him—through our good works. We will not be obeying him out of delight in who he is in himself. So, apart from ‘grateful remembering’ of the gospel, all good works are done then for sinful motives. Mere moral effort, may restrain the heart, but does not truly change the heart into Christ-like character. Moral effort ‘jury rigs’ the evil of the heart to produce moral behavior, out of self-interest. It is only a matter of time before such a thin tissue collapses.

Sum: This means then, that idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. Why do we ever lie, or fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is “because we are weak and sinful”, but the specific answer is always that there is something besides Jesus Christ that you feel must have to be happy, something that is more important to your heart than God, something that is spinning out a delusional field and enslaving the heart through inordinate desires. So the secret to change (and even to self-understanding) is always to identify the idols of the heart.

3. Idolatry is at the root of all unbelief and, to some degree, every culture.

It is not only that idols are the basis for all personal sins and problems, but they are also the basis for all social and cultural sins and problems. When an individual makes and serves an idol, it creates psychological distortion and troubles; when a family, a group, or country makes and serves an idol, it creates social and cultural trouble.

When we read Paul in Ephesians and Colossians carefully, we see him talking about ‘powers’ that sometimes seem to be demons, but sometimes appear to be forces that we can convert and persuade. I think that what we see is an example of good things—government, business/capital, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge—made idols and thus suffused with destructive (‘demonic’) power. The book of Revelation in particular shows how the state—something quite good in Romans 13—can become evil.

Intellectual and cultural idols stem not just from a disbelief in God but from a basic rejection of the basic gospel. if we reject the truth that all our problems come from a depraved heart, we will have to account for it by ‘demonizing’ some created thing as well as idealizing (ideologizing) of some other created thing. So romanticism demonized culture and idealized nature. Marxism demonized the rich and idealized economic and social factors. It believed that if we manipulated them properly, social problems would evaporate.

The following are a list of some of the more obvious social-cultural idols. (Please remember that what is written below are major generalizations. There are many different forms of socialism and capitalism, for example, which moderate and improve on the fundamental theme I mention. The idea is to show that most ‘ideologies’ are ‘idolatries’. These overlap. The first three are economic-political ideologies; the last two are intellectual-philosophical ideologies).

a. Fascism makes an idol out of one particular race or nationality of culture. It occurs when a culture teaches individuals to say “I am acceptable because I am of the ____race which is far better than ____race(s).” Closely associated with this is the idol of militarism and physical might for coercion. Christianity is neither culturally relativistic nor imperialistic. It knows that not all cultures are equally healthy, but that all cultures are deeply stained by sin and must be judged by the Lord.

b. Socialism makes an idol of the state. It occurs when a culture teaches that our main problems are at root only social, not spiritual and moral. This view relies overly or exclusively on government solutions to re-engineer society. Christianity understands that our problems are rooted in sin which effects both social systems and individual hearts and will make an idol neither out of government nor of private, individual initiative.

c. Capitalism makes an idol of the ‘market’. When a society comes to believe that most or all our problems will be solved by free market competition, it leads people to “worship” success, personal freedom, and the ‘almighty individual’. Today, even advocates of the free market recognize the ‘cultural contradictions of capitalism’, namely, that capitalism and consumerism undermine the very virtues of self-control and responsibility that gave it rise.

d. Relativism makes an idol out of one’s own individual conscience and inner feelings. When a society teaches people “you alone can determine what is right or wrong for you, as long as you don’t steal others’ freedom to have the same choice”, then it has made “choice” an absolute value, and the feelings of the heart a god.

e. Empiricism makes an idol out of nature and scientific investigation. It insists absolutely everything has a natural, scientific cause. Thus it believes science has an answer for everything and will open all doors.

f. Pluralism can make an idol out of the government, too. The government is apparently “neutral” toward religion and holds that truth is ‘relative’. But that means that no religion or faith has the right to call into question government practices.

“[When does the pursuit of a legitimate goal become idolatry, or ‘ideology’?] An ideology arises the moment the end indiscriminately justifies every means…Thus a nation’s goal of material prosperity becomes an idol [the ideology of materialism] when we use it to justify the destruction of the natural environment or allow the abuse of individuals or classes of people. A nation’s goal of military security [becomes an idol [the ideology of militarism] when we use it to justify the removal of rights to free speech and judicial process, or the abuse of an ethnic minority.] – Bob Goodzwaard—Idols of Our Time

But while idols are all about getting power through power and performance, the biblical God can only be approached through repentance—a loss of power. While idolatry is the attempt to manipulate God to obtain power and security/salvation for oneself or one’s group, the gospel is that we are saved by sheer grace, and thus we surrender ourselves in grateful love and become willing, sacrificial servants of everyone. We now become agents in God’s kingdom which comes full of justice and mercy to all who are suffering. The gospel is the end of ideologies.

Sum: At the root of all problems (personal or social), and of all non-Christian philosophies and ideologies is the elevation of some created thing to the place of ultimate worship and ultimate arbiter of truth and meaning.

“The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For although each individual sin retains its proper feature, although it is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet they all fall under the general heading of idolatry…[All murder and adultery, for example are idolatry, for they arise because something is loved more than God—yet in turn, all idolatry is murder for it assaults God, and all idolatry is also adultery for it is unfaithfulness to God.] Thus it comes to pass, that in idolatry all crimes are detected, and in all crimes idolatry.” – Tertullian, On Idolatry Chapter 1

“A careful reading of the OT and NT’s shows that idolatry is nothing like the crude, simplistic picture that springs to mind of an idol sculpture in some distant country. As the main category to describe unbelief, the idea is highly sophisticated, drawing together the complexities of motivation in individual psychology, the social environment, and also the unseen world. Idols are not just on pagan altars, but in well-educated human hearts and minds (Ezekiel 14). The apostle associates the dynamics of human greed, lust, craving, and coveting with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). The Bible does not allow us to marginalize idolatry to the fringes of life…it is found on center stage.” – R. Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God

C. THE CONSTITUTION OF IDOLS

1. THE CONSTRUCTION OF IDOLS

a. Idols form into a system.

How do the particular idol-systems come to be formed in us? How do we come to have our specific idols?

The world, the flesh, and the devil (1 John 2:16,17) are inextricably linked in their influences to produce idols in us. First, our “flesh”, our sinful heart is by nature an “idol factory” (as Calvin put it). Second, the “world”, our social environment, coaxes us into various idols by model and example and sometimes direct appeal. Our family’s idols, our culture’s idols, our classes idols shape us either when we embrace them or reject them for the idol-opposite. Third, the “devil” works in us to stir up and enflame desires into idolatrous bondages. If we leave out any of the three aspects, we will reduce behavior to either “Johnny is bad” or “Johnny is abused” or “Johnny is sick”. But all these approaches are simplistic compared to the Bible. None of our behavior is simply the result of only: a) our inherent nature, b) our environment, or c) our free choice. The Bible is not essentialist (“he was born that way, it is hopeless”), behaviorist (“he is a victim of what they did to him, it’s hopeless”), or existentialist (“it’s all a matter of his choice; he can be whatever he wants to be!”).

“How do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins…Second, people with problems come from families or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. We suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other think, want, fear, value, feel, and do…My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems…Third, behavior is motivated by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. How are we…responsible for our behavior [#1], socially conditioned [#2], and creatures whose hearts are twisted and complex all at the same time without any factor canceling out the others?

The social and behavioral sciences miss this…Human motivation is never strictly psychological [controlled primarily by my feelings] or psycho-social [controlled primarily by my environment] or psycho-social-somatic [controlled primarily by my biological genetic code]. Human motivation is always is always God-relational [we are controlled primarily by what we worship]. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.” – D. Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

Idolatry can therefore be a useful way to understand very complex, pathological personal and relational patterns of life.

“The things frequently labeled ‘co-dependency’ are more precisely instances of ‘co-idolatry’. People’s typical idol patterns often reinforce each other and fit an uncanny way into a [single, large] idol system, creating massively destructive feedback loops. The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well:

[1] The idol pattern in the husband…might be a use of alcohol (a) to serve an idol of escape from the pains and frustrations in life, or (b) to serve an idol of self-crucifixion to deal with his periodic guilt and remorse…[2] The idol pattern in the wife…might be a use of rescuing behavior (a) to serve an idol of personal worth by being a martyred savior of her family, or (b) to serve an idol of security by having a male’s love and dependence on her.

Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is ‘logical’ within the idol system…Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character…judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust…Each idol in the system ‘makes promises’ and ‘gives warnings’. Service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accusedness, because idols lie and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who as a liar and murderer from the beginning.”

“Co-dependency literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols which curse and enslave people (e.g. the rescuer or compulsive drinker). But the solution [in this same literature] is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than Bible’s Christ…Self-esteem…acceptance and love from new significant others, [better jobs and careers] create successful versions of the idols ‘fear of man’ and ‘trust of man’. Eufunctional idols do ‘work’ and ‘bless’ with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73)…but the idol system is intact…” – D. Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

“The idol begins as a means of power, enabling us to control, but then overpowers, controlling us.” – Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God.

b. Idols have a “near” and “far” dimension.

“Far idols” such as power, approval, comfort, and control are more subtle and basic. They are at the roots of your life—“farther” from the surface of things. They are motivational drives. They can work through many ‘near idols’. They are dealt with mainly by a process of repenting and rejoicing (See assignment below and next week’s “Dismantling Idols” Project)

“Near idols” are more concrete and specific objects such as your spouse or your carer. Now these things—your business, your ministry, your music—are extremely good things that you need to detach from the far idols, which are using them. That means they often (even ordinarily) may remain in your life, if they are ‘put in their place’. This is what Augustine meant when he spoke of the “right ordering of our loves”.

How do we do this? Basically, you don’t want to love a near idol less, but rather come to love and rejoice in God more than you do in it—so you don’t try to ‘earn your salvation’ through it. It is important, therefore, to work on your far idols the most, or you’ll feel that your near idol is somehow dirty in itself.

Question your motives, especially when your emotions surrounding your ‘near idol’ makes you bitter, scared, or discouraged. Ask “Why am I so upset?” For idols give a franticness to our work with near idols. Often, after we become Christians (or after we get serious about our Christianity) we will have a period of ‘disorientation’, even a lapse in intensity, as we lose our old idolatrous motivations and learn gradually to pursue our ministry, marriage, and work, for Christ’s sake. But that is an extremely important transition. Jonathan Edwards’ insisted that only when we detach our work from far idols do we actually do the work for it’s own sake. “True” virtue, is to love your music for its own sake, or your spouse for his/her own sake. And you are free to do in the gospel because now you love God for his own sake, not just to get heaven and reward from him. This is what the fullness of grace does. Without the gospel, you will do your work “to get a name” or “to prove yourself”—not for the sake of the work itself.

Sum: Sin cannot simply be resisted at the volitional level through mere will power, but on the other hand, we are not helpless victims. Sin must primarily be rooted out at the motivational level through the application of gospel-truth. We must find what we worship as our functional savior through works-righteousness, in rejection of the gospel of free grace and salvation through Christ. Then we must repent and replace the idol with love and joy in Christ at the same time we are trying to change our behavior.

c. Idols create a ‘delusional field’.

As we have seen, idols spin out a whole set of assumptions and false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness and worth and valuelessness.

“Your idols define good and evil ways contrary to God’s definitions. They spin out a whole false belief system. False gods create false laws, false definitions of honor and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail. ‘If I can ______then my life will be valid.”

This is critical to understand. There is legitimate sorrow, and then there is idolatrous, inconsolable sorrow, that is really the ‘curse’ of the idol. It is saying, “if you don’t have me there IS nothing else that can satisfy you!” There is legitimate guilt, and then there is un-redeemidible guilt. When people say: “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself”—they mean they have failed an idol, whose standards are different than God’s and whose approval is more important to them than God’s.

d. Idols can thrive in a religious environment.

Often it is possible to jettison ‘near idols’ of sex or money and enter the church, but the ‘far idols’ may continue to be served and looked to as our functional righteousness and ‘covering’ rather than Jesus Christ. It is quite possible to serve the idol of approval, power, or control in religious forms. The elder brother in Luke 15 was seeking power and control through obeying the father, while the younger brother was attempting it through disobedience. The lack of a clear ‘near idol’ (like prostitutes) in the elder brother’s life masked what he was really about.

2. THE DE-CONSTRUCTION OF IDOLS

a. The “Moralyzing” Approach.

A very typical approach to personal change among orthodox and conservative Christians can best be called the “moralizing” approach. Basic analysis: Your problem is that you are doing wrong. Repent! This focuses on behavior—but doesn’t go deep enough. We must find out the why of our behavior. Why do I find I want to do the wrong things? What inordinate desires are drawing me to do so? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) to ‘repent and change behavior’ is insufficient, because the lack of self-control is coming from a belief that says, ‘even if you live up to moral standards, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.’ You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all—your particular idolatry.

b. The “Psychologizing” Approach.

A very typical approach to personal change among more liberal religious groups can best be called the “psychologizing” approach. Basic analysis: Your problem is that you don’t see that God loves you as you are. Rejoice! This focuses on feelings, which seems to be “deeper” than behavior—but it also fails to go deep enough. We must also find out the why of our feelings. Why do I have such strong feelings of despair (or fear, or anger) when this or that happens? What are the inordinate desires that are being frustrated? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) ‘God loves you—rejoice!” is insufficient, because the unhappiness is coming from a belief that says, ‘even if God loves you, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.’ You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all—your particular idolatry.

c. The “Gospel” Approach.

Basic Analysis: Your problem is that you are looking to something besides Christ for your happiness. Repent and rejoice! This confronts a person with the real sin under the sins behind the bad feelings. Our problem is that we have given ourselves over to idols. Every idol system is a way of our-works-salvation, and this it keeps us “under the law”. Paul tells us that the bondage of sin is broken when we come out from under the law—when we begin to believe the gospel of Christ’s-work-salvation. Only when we realize in a new way that we are righteous in Christ is the idol’s power over us broken. Sin shall not be your master for you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14). You will only be “under grace” and free from the controlling effects of idols to the degree that you have both: (1) repented for your idols, and (2) rested and rejoiced in the saving work and love of Christ instead.

“If we accurately comprehend the interweaving of…behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then…what was once ‘dry doctrine’ becomes filled with appeal, hope, delight and life. People see the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins…[1. A Psychologizing approach says] ‘you feel horribly and act badly because your needs aren’t being met—because your family did not meet them’…then it says, God accepts you just as you are’…This is not the biblical gospel, however…This approach just soothes the unhappy soul without getting to the source of the pain]. [2. In a Moralyzing approach] Christ’s forgiveness is applied simply to behavioral sins. The solution is typically…an attempt to deal with the motive problems with a single act of housecleaning. There is little sense of patient process of inner renewal…daily dying to the false gods we fabricate.” – David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

“The faith that…is able to warn itself at the fire of God’s love, instead of having to steal love and self-acceptance from other sources, is actually the root of holiness…It is often said today, in circles which blend popular psychology with Christianity, that we must love ourselves before we can be set free to love others…But no realistic human beings find it easy to love or forgive themselves, and hence their self-acceptance must be grounded in their awareness that God accepts them in Christ. There is a sense in which the strongest self-love that we can have…is merely the mirror image of the lively conviction we have that God loves us. Moralism, whether it takes the form of either deunuciation or “pep talks”, can ultimately only create an awareness of sin and guilt or manufactured virtues built on will power…We all automatically gravitate toward the assumption that we are justified by our level of sanctification, and when this posture is adopted, it inevitably focuses our attention not on Christ but on the adequacy of our own obedience. We start each day with our personal security not resting on the accepting love of God and the sacrifice of Christ but on our present feelings or recent achievements in the Christians life. Since these arguments will not quiet the human conscience we, are inevitably moved either to discouragement and apathy or to a self-righteousness [some form of idolatry] which falsifies the record to achieve a sense of peace…” – Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life

D. A PASTORAL PROCESS WITH IDOLS

1. IDENTIFYING YOUR IDOLS

a. Using ‘Problem Emotions’ to identify idols.

“1. Every self exists in relation to values perceived as making life worth living. A value is anything good in the created order—any idea, relation, object or person in which one has an interest, form which one derives significance…

2. These values compete…In time, one is prone to choose a center of value by which other values are judged…[which] comes to exercise power or preeminence over other values.

3. When a finite value has been elevated to centrality and imagined as a final source of meaning, then one has chosen…a godOne has a god when a finite value is…viewed as that without which one cannot receive life joyfully. (To be worshipped as a god, something must be sufficiently good…Were my daughter not a source of exceptional affection and delight, she would not be a potential idolatry for me, but I am tempted to adore her in a way…disproportional.)

Anxiety [Idolatry and the future]

[5] Anxiety becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…Suppose my god is sex or my physical health or the Democratic Party. If I experience any of these under genuine threat, then I feel myself shaken to the depths.

Guilt/Bitterness [Idolatry and the past]

[6] Guilt bcomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…Suppose I value my ability to teach and communicate clearly…If clear communication has become an absolute value for me, a center of value that makes all my other values valuable…then if I [fail in teaching well] I am stricken with neurotic guilt.

[7] Bitterness becomes neurotically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value]

Boredom/Emptiness [Idolatry and the present]

[8. To be bored is to feel empty, [meaningless] Boredom is an anticipatory form of being dead. To the extent to which limited values are exalted to idolatries…[when any of those values are lost], boredom becomes pathological and compulsive…My subjectively experienced boredom may then become infinitely projected toward the whole cosmos…This picture of the self is called despair [The milder forms are disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism]” – T.C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia – Chapter 6

TESTING FOR THEM:

If you are angry. Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am angry—because I am being blocked from having something I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:

If you are fearful or badly worried. Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am so scared—because something is being threatened which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:

If you are despondent or hating yourself: Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am so ‘down’ – because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:

b. Using ‘motivational drives’ to identify idols.

“An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. All sorts of things are potential idols…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero…If this is so, how do we determine when something is…an idol?

As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol…

–Work, a commandment of God can become an idol if it is pursued so exclusively that responsibilities to one’s family are ignored.

–Family, an institution of God himself, can become an idol if one is so preoccupied with the family that no one outside one’s family can be cared for.

–Being well-liked, a perfect legitimate hope, becomes an idol if the attachment to it means one never risks disapproval.

[Idols] are inflated…suggesting that the idol will fulfill the promises for the good life…Idols tend to come in pairs—[for example] a nearby idol may be a rising standard of living, but the faraway idol is a semi-conscious belief that material success will wipe away every tear…” — Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God.

“…that most basic question which God poses to each human heart: “has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s functional trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?

Questions…bring some of people’s idol systems to the surface. “To who or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security and acceptance?…What do you really want and expect [out of life]? What would [really] make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success?’ These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors.

[This bears] on the immediate motivation of my behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question: who or what “rules my behavior, the Lord or an idol?” – David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

We often don’t go deep enough to analyze our idol-structures. For example, “money” is of course an idol, yet in another sense, money can be sought in order to satisfy very different, more foundational or “far” idols. For example, some people want lots of money, but save it) while others want lots of money for access to social circles and for making themselves beautiful and attractive (such people do spend their money on themselves!) The same goes for sex. Some people use sex in order to get power over others, others in order to feel approved and loved, and others just for pleasure/comfort. The following outline can be helpful in letting people consider different foundational “idol-structures”. Dick Keyes calls them “far-idols” as opposed to “near idols”. Remember, these are all alternative ways to make ourselves “righteous/worthy”:

What We Seek         Price Willing to Pay         Greatest Nightmare      Others Feel     Prob/Emotion

COMFORT                       Reduced                      Stress, demands               Hurt           Boredom

(Privacy, lack of stress, freedom)

APPROVAL            Less independence                   Rejection                Smothered     Cowardice

(Affirmation, love, relationship)

CONTROL               Loneliness, spontaneity         Uncertainty            Condemned       Worry

(Self-discipline, certainity, standards)

POWER                  Burdened; responsibility        Humiliation                  Used             Anger

(Success, winning, influence)

TESTING FOR THEM:

Circle the thoughts that are lodged in your heart:

Power idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have power and influence over others.

Approval Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am loved and respected by ___________________.

Comfort idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.”

Control idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____________________.”

Other related idols:

Helping idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—people are dependent on me and need me.”

Dependence idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.”

Independence idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.”

Work idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am highly productive getting a lot done.”

Achievement idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am being recognized for my accomplishments, if I am excelling in my career.”

Religion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.”

Individual person idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—this one person is in my life and happy there and/or happy with me.”

Materialism idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.”

Irreligion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and with a self-made morality.”

Racial/cultural idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.”

Inner ring idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.”

Family idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my children and/OR my parents are happy and happy with me.”

Family idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—Mr. or Ms. ‘Right’ is in love with me.”

Suffering idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am hurting, in a problem—only then do I feel noble or worthy of love or am able to deal with guilt.”

Ideology idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my political or social cause or party is making progress and ascending in influence or power.”

Image idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have a particular kind of look or body image.”

Answer these diagnostic questions:

a. What is my greatest nightmare? What do I worry about most?

b. What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live? What keeps me going?

c. What do I rely on or comfort self with when things go bad or get difficult?

d. What do I think most easily about? What does my mind go to when I am free? What preoccupies me?

e. What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?

f. What makes me feel the most self-worth? What am I the proudest of?

g. What do I really want and expect out of life? What really makes me happy?

Summarize: Now that you’ve answered the questions above, look for common themes. Write below what you think are the “functional” masters? What things tend to be too important to you?

2. DISMANTLING YOUR IDOLS

a. First Step – Repent: Taking Down The Idols (Judges 10:10-16; Romans 8:13)

On the one hand, (contra the Psychologizing Approach) you are called to repent. You have been worshipping an idol and rejected the true God. Every idol is the center of some system of works-righteousness by which we are seeking to “earn” our salvation, so you are also trying to be your own Savior. So you must repent. But this actually gives much hope—it means there is something you can do. The Psychologizing Approach, though sympathetic, is not truly empowering, because it leaves us feeling like helpless victims. How do we repent?

(1) NAME THE IDOLS (getting specific)

In prayer, name these things to God. Sample prayer language: “Lord, these are the things I have built my life and heart around…”

  • Name some “Near” idol or idols:

  • Name some “Far” idol or idols:

(2) UNMASK THE IDOLS

Idols create “delusions”. They appear more wonderful or all powerful than they really are. They lead us to deny their hold on us. Stand back and get them into perspective. In what ways are your idols distorting your thinking or hiding themselves from you? (For example: “My idol of status and money has made me deny how much I hate my job and how much happier I would be in another (but lower-paying) career.”)

Recognize how weak and poor they are (in themselves). In prayer, confess that these things are good, but finite and weak, and praise God for being the only source of what you need. Sample prayer language, “Lord, this is a good thing, why have I made it to be so absolute? Why do I feel so pointless with out it? What is this compared to you? If I have you, I don’t have to have this! This cannot bless me and love me and help me like you! This is not my life—Jesus is my life! This is not my righteousness and worthiness. It cannot give me that. But you can and have!” Write out such a prayer in your own words.

Recognize how dangerous they are (to you). Idols enslave, and they will never be satisfied. Realize how they increasingly destroy you. Look and now, in prayer, confess that these things are absolutely lethal, and ask a strong God for his help. Sample prayer language: “Lord, why am I giving this so much power over me? If I keep doing it, it will strangle me. I don’t have to do so—I will not do so any longer. I will not let this jerk me around on a leash any longer. This will not be my Master—you are my only King.” Write out such a prayer in your own words.

Recognize how grievous they are (to Christ). Idols ultimately are cruel to the heart of the one who offers us so much, and at such infinite cost. Realize that when you pine after idols (in your anger, fear, despondency) that you are saying: “Lord, you are enough. This is more beautiful, fulfilling, and sweet to my taste than you. You are negotiable, but this is not. Despite all you’ve done for me, I will only use you as long as you help me get this. You are negotiable, but this is not. You haven’t done enough for me—if you don’t help me have this, I will discard you.” In prayer, admit, how deeply you have grieved and de-valued Jesus, and ask forgiveness. Sample prayer language: “Lord I see how repulsive this idol for what it is—an idol. In yearning after this, I have trampled on your love for me. I realize now that the greatest sin in my life is a lack of thankfulness, a lack of grateful joy for what you have done for me.” Write such a prayer in your own words.

b. Second Step – Rejoice: Replacing The Idols (Luke 10:20; Colossians 3:1-4).

On the other hand (contra the Moralyzing Approach) you are called to tremendous joy and encouragement. What you have turned from is the beauty, love, and joy of Christ. He offers what you have been seeking elsewhere. He awaits you, he “stands at the door” knocking (Rev. 3:20), seeking a far deeper connection of intimacy with you than he has previously. It is an appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done and offers you that will “replace” the idol. Notice how often (Col. 3:1-9; Rom. 8:6-13; Heb. 12:1-3) growth and change is a dynamic of two interactive processes—“put to death” (repentance) and “set your mind above” (rejoicing in what you have and are in Christ). These are not really two separable things. Only rejoicing in Christ strengthens us to admit the worst about ourselves in repentance. On the other hand, only the sight of our sin reveals to us how free and unmerited his grace is. Rejoicing and repentance must go together. Repentance without rejoicing will lead to despair. Rejoicing without repentance is shallow and will only provide passing inspiration instead of deep change.

What does it mean to “rejoice” or “set your mind” on Christ? “Rejoicing” in the Bible is much deeper than simply being happy about something. Paul directed that we “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), but this cannot mean “always feel happy”, since he also said that every day he was weighted with concern and anxiety over his flock (2 Cor. 11:28-29). Jesus forbid his disciples to rejoice in their power over demons, and insisted that they rejoice over their salvation (Luke 10:20). What you rejoice in is the thing that is your central sweetness and consolation in life. To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it.

So “rejoicing” is a way of praising God until the heart is sweetned and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else it thinks that it needs. The rejoicing is this not strictly a second distinct step after repentance, but rather it completes the repentance. (In the same way, the Christian repentance is not distinct, but rather it begins the rejoicing!) Why? In Christian repentance—we do not “take our sins” to Mt. Sinai, but to Mt. Calvary. Sinai represents only the law of God, and makes us fear God will reject us. But Calvary represents both the law of God and his commitment to save us no matter what—even if his Son has to fulfill and pay our debt to the law. “Going to Sinai” with our sins means we use the painful fear of rejection to motivate us to change. “Going to Calvary” with our sins means we use gratitude for his love to motivate us to change. The free love of Christ means that in disobedience, you have not just broken the rules, but spurned the One who lost his Father rather than lose you.

The Moralyzing Approach, then, though challenging, is not in the end truly cleansing, because it only makes us afraid of the consequences of our sin, rather than disgusted with the sin itself as grieving and dishonoring to our Savior. Thus it is only as we rejoice in the absolute certainty of his love for us that we can truly repent. In the gospel, it is the thing that most assures us (free grace) that most deeply convicts us of sin. How do we rejoice? 3 ways:

(1) REJOICE IN PARTICULAR.

To replace idols so they cannot grow (back), you must learn to rejoice in the particular thing that Jesus brings that replaces the particular idol of your heart. Whenever you see your heart in the grip of some kind of disobedience or misery, some temptation, anxiety, anger, etc., always ask: (1) How are these effects being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me what only Jesus can really give me? And (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Then Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Here are some examples:

(a) If you struggle with temptation, (often it is a near idol linked to a far idol of comfort)—let Jesus entice you with his life. Rejoice in the gospel until you see his beauty. (1) How are these temptations being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me the comfort and consolation that only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him entice you with his beauty. Sample rejoicing prayer for times of temptation: “Lord, only in your presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forever more (Psalm 16:11) yet here I am trying to find comfort in something else. Why rake in a mud puddle when you have set a table for me (Psalm 23:5) filled with your love, peace, joy? This thing I am tempted by is just a pleasure that will wear off so soon—it is a sham and cheat, while your pleasure, though it may start small will grow on and forever (Prov. 4:18). And remove my idols of pleasure, which never can give me the pleasure I need.”

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when tempted—read John 6:5-13:32-40. See Jesus feeding people with his bread, the only bread that will not leave you hungry (John 6:35). Meditate on John 6 and write out a rejoicing prayer that replaces temptation thoughts.

(b) If you struggle with anxiety, (often out of a far idol of control) let Jesus comfort you with his care. Rejoice in the gospel until you are humbled enough (to see you don’t know best) or valued enough (to see that he could not forget you). (1) How are these anxieties being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me the control over my life and environment only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him quiet you with his loving power. Sample rejoicing prayer for times of anxiety: “Lord, I live by your sheer grace. That means though I don’t deserve to have things go right, yet I know you are working them all out for good (Rom. 8:28) because you love me in Christ. All my punishment fell into Jesus’ heart—so you only allow bad things for my growth, and for loving wise purposes. I can relax, because my security in life is based neither on luck nor hard work, but on your gracious love for me. You have counted every hair on my head (Matt. 10:30-31) and every tear down my cheeks (Ps. 56:8) – you love me far more and better than anyone else loves me or than I love myself. And remove my idols of security—which never can give me the security I need.” Pray this prayer when anxious or write one out yourself.

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when anxious—read Luke 8:22-25; Mark 4:35-41. See Jesus assuring them of his care. Meditate on this and write out a prayer that replaces anxious thoughts.

(c) If you struggle with anger and pride, (often out of a desire for power), let Jesus humble and soften you with his mercy. Rejoice in the gospel until you are so. (1) How are this anger and hardness being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or something to give me the power and significance that only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him humble and soften you with his grace and mercy. Sample rejoicing prayer for times of anger: “Lord, when I forget the gospel I become impatient and judgmental of others. I forget that you have been infinitely patient with me over the years. You are slow to anger and rich in love (Psalm 145:8). When I am anything other than tender-hearted and compassionate to people around me, I am like the unmerciful servant, who, having been forgiven an infinite debt, is hard toward his fellow debtor (Matt. 18:21-35). I live completely and solely by your grace and long-suffering, and I praise you for it. Tenderize my heart toward others as I do so. And remove the idol of power—the need to get my own way—which is making me so hard toward these people.” Pray this prayer when irritable and angry or one you write out yourself.

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when cold or angry—read Matthew 26:36-46. See Jesus being let down by his disciples, but still giving them credit for their willing spirits (Matt. 26:41). Remember that you have fallen asleep on him so often. Meditate on this and write out a prayer that replaces hard-hearted thoughts:

(d) If you struggle with rejection and a sense of worthlessness (often out of a desire for approval), let Jesus assure you of his love. Rejoice in the gospel till you are affirmed. (1) How is this despondency being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me the sense of approval that only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him assure you with his fatherly love. Sample rejoicing prayer: “Lord, when I forget the gospel I become dependent on the smiles and evaluation of others. I let them sit in judgment on me and then I hear all their criticism as a condemnation of my very being. But you have said, “Now there is no condemnation’ for me (Rom 8:1). You delight and sing over me (Zeph. 3:14-17), you see me as a beauty (Col. 1:22). Why do I pant after the approval of the serfs when I have the love of the King? Ironically, I am being a lousy friend—because I am too hurt by criticism to either learn from it of give it to others (for fear of getting it back). Oh, let me be so satisfied with your love, committed to what is best for them. Remove my idols of approval—which can never give me the approval I need” Pray this prayer when feeling hurt and rejected or write on out yourself.

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when hurt or rejected—read John 15:9-17; 17:13-26. Listen to how Jesus talks about you to his Father. Think of what you mean to him, what he is willing to do for you. Meditate of this and write out a prayer that replaces despondent thoughts.

It should be clear how to reflect on your heart in such a way that you can deal with its idolatrous ‘motions’ and effects. You may have other problems besides the four mentioned above. For example, you may have a particular problem with guilt over the past, or with boredom in general, and so on. Follow the same pattern you see above: (a) What is the ‘far’ idol motivation (e.g. power, approval)? What is the ‘near’ idol it is attached to (e.g. success at work, dating a particular person, ministry)? (b) How does Jesus particularly provide what the idols cannot? (1) Pray to him, thanking him for it, and (2) find some passage of Scripture in which he very visibly and concretely demonstrates this gift or quality. Meditate on it.

(2) REJOICING IN PROCESS.

Meditation. Essentially, rejoicing in Christ is worship. You can get no relief simply by “figuring out” your idols and simply saying, “but Jesus gives me peace that this idol cannot.” You have to actually get the peace that Jesus gives, and that only comes as you worship. The “Rejoicing in Particular” exercises are just abstractions that will not effect you unless as you pray and praise and meditate the Spirit inscribes these truths on the heart (Eph. 1:18ff.; 3:15ff). These worksheets can give you the truths you need, but through the Spirit you have to “pray them in”. That takes time. It is a process.

So it is not only important to spend time repenting and rejoicing in fixed times of solitude and prayer. You must also “catch” your heart falling into idolatry during the day, and you must draw on your hard work of reflection by learning to quickly repent/rejoice your heart into shape on the spot. This means that everyone should have a series of “Quick Strike” prayers that go against your main idols and the delusional fields/negative patterns that may happen during the day. (You may wish to write these prayers out on a card.) Often the prayers might be accompanied by a Bible passage or verse.

When filled with anxiety, thinking: “If I slip up, if I make a wrong move here, I could lose everything.” But think or pray instead, “All the things I have are really gifts of grace. They aren’t here because of my performance, but by God’s generosity. He loves me enough to lose his only Son for me, surely he will continue to give me what I need. Console yourself.”

When filled with pride and anger, thinking: “I am not getting what I deserve! People are not treating me right! Who do they think they are?” But think and pray instead, “All the things I have are really gifts of grace. I have never gotten what I deserve—and I never will! If God gave me what I deserved, I’d be dead. Humble yourself.”

When filled with guilt, thinking: “I have blown it! My problems mean he’s abandoned me.” But think or pray instead, “All the things I have are the results of God’s grace. I never earned them to begin with—so I couldn’t have un-earned them. He accepted me long ago even though he knew I would do this. This was in my heart all along—I just didn’t see it, but he did. He’s with me now. Be confident, Self.”

When filled with boredom and lethargy, thinking: “Sure, I’m a Christian. Sure I have good things. So what?” But think or pray instead, “All the things I have—every one—is a gift of grace. The very fact I am a Christian is a miracle. Be amazed. Be in wonder, Self.”

Conclusion: All we have been trying to say in this last section is well summarized by a few famous lines in a poem by John Donne. Meditate on it and make it a prayer—

Take me to you, imprison me.

For I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except YOU ravish me.

SOURCE: Personal notes from Dr. Tim Keller’s lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fl. in the early 2000’s – lecture from I-tunes.

 

 

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Tim Keller: Preaching the Gospel in a Postmodern World – Session 6 Notes

GETTING DOWN TO EARTH: PART II

Tim Keller praching w bible image

 METHODS FOR CHRIST CENTERED APPLICATION – DR. TIM KELLER

INTRODUCTION

In the last session we laid out three broad strategies for doing application in sermons. What follows is a series of more specific methods for the actual designing and executing of application in a sermon.

A. THE DISCIPLINE OF WHO YOU TALK TO.

1. Your people-context always shapes your sermons.

When we study the Bible, we only extract answers to the questions that we implicitly or explicitly have on our hearts as we read it. If all revelation is covenantal, and we don’t understand a passage of the Scripture unless we know how to “use” it (see Session 1-B), then there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere”. We have certain questions, problems, and issues on our mind, and as we read the Bible, we mainly “hear” what it teaches us about those questions, problems, and issues.

Therefore, there is a “vicious” cycle in preaching. You will tend to preach to the people you listen to most during the week. Why? The people you are most engaged with fill your mind with their questions, which act as something of a “grid” as you read the Bible. Their issues will be on your mind as you read and you will especially notice biblical truth that speaks to them. Thus your sermons will tend to aim at the people who you already have most on your heart. They will then be the people that are most interested and satisfied by your preaching. They will come and bring others like themselves. Because they are coming, you will meet more of them, speak more to them, and thus (semi-consciously) tailor your sermons more to them. The more you listen to them, the more they pull the sermon toward them—the more you direct the sermon to them, the more they come to church—the more they come to church, the more you listen to them.

At the very worst, evangelical preachers read and engage other evangelical preachers and writers. They read (and speak to) almost exclusively those thinkers that support their own views. Then the sermons are really only helpful for other seminary students and graduates (of your particular stripe)! It is not really true that some sermons are too academic and thus lack application. Rather, the preacher is applying the text to the people’s questions that he most understands—other academics.

At the best, evangelical preachers read and engage other evangelical Christians. Then their sermons are really only helpful for other Christians. Christians may love the messages and feel they are being “fed”, but they know instinctively that they cannot bring non-Christian friends to church. They never think, “I wish my non-Christian neighbor could be here to hear this.”

There is then no abstract, academic way to preach relevant, applicatory sermons. They will arise from who you will listen to. If you spend most of your time reading, instead of out with people, you will apply the Bible text to the authors of the books you read. If you spend most of your time in Christian meetings or in the evangelical sub-culture, your sermons will apply the Bible text to the needs of evangelicals. The only way out of this is to deliberately diversify your people context.

2. Deliberately diversify your people-context.

How? The first approach is easiest—vary what you read. Read lots of material by people who differ wildly from you theologically. The fastest way to do this is not to read books, but magazines. For happy middle class liberal/New Age culture, read The Utne Reader. For angry liberal/atheistic culture, read The Nation. For sophisticated, upscale liberal culture read The New Yorker. For cutting edge GenX liberal culture, try Wired. There are quite a few other periodicals that would do just as well. This is just an idea.

The second approach is harder—vary who you talk to. Pastors find this difficult, because most people won’t be themselves with us. Nevertheless, through being very careful with your appointment schedule, and through being creative with your community and neighborhood involvement, be sure to spend time with people from a variety of spiritual conditions. Here is a partial list. Be sure that you do not find you only spend time with one kind of person.

B. DISCIPLINE WHO YOU ‘PICTURE’.

Now when you both read the Bible text and write the sermon, think especially of individuals you know with various spiritual conditions (non-Christian, weak Christian, strong Christian), with various besetting sins (pride, lust, worry, greed, prejudice, resentment, self-consciousness, depression, fear, guilt), and in various circumstances (loneliness, persecution, weariness, grief, sickness, failure, indecision, confusion, physical handicaps, old age, disillusionment, boredom). Now, remembering specific faces, look at the biblical truth you are applying and ask: “how would this text apply to this or that person?” Imagine yourself personally counseling the person with the text. Write down what you would say. The effect of this exercise is to be sure that your application is specific, practical, and personal.

1. Quick-Lists.

At the very least, ask yourself: “What does this text say to a) Mature Christians, b) non-Christians, c) newer or very immature Christians?

A second list to keep in your head easily is to ask yourself: “What does this text say to the ‘four soils’, the four groups of the Mark 4 parable?” a) Conscious skeptics and rejecters of the faith, b) Nominal Christians whose commitment is extremely shallow, c) Christians who are divided in their loyalties and messed up in their priorities, d) Mature, committed Christians.

2. Warning Will Robinson!

Important safety tip. If the person(s) you are visualizing are actually going to be in the audience which hears the sermon you are preparing, be sure not to use details that would make it appear that you are using the pulpit to publicly rebuke an individual. That is an unbiblical thing to do! (Matthew 18 and 5 tells us to go to a person privately if we have something against them). You want your sermon to apply to large numbers of people, not just one. Use the thought of individuals to stimulate specific applications, but don’t write them out in such a way to cause the audience to play a “guessing game” about the parties you are referring to.

3. Longer Lists (to get you thinking)

Here are the kinds of different people you may be speaking to. Does the text speak to any of them?

Non-Christians

  • Conscious Unbeliever – aware he is not a Christian.

  • Immoral pagan – Living a blatantly immoral/illegal lifestyle.

  • Intellectual pagan – Claiming the faith is untenable or unreasonable.

  • Imitative pagan – Is fashionably skeptical, but not profound.

  • Genuine thinker – Has serious, well-conceived objections.

  • Religious Non-Christian – Belonging to organized religions, cults, or denominations with seriously mistaken doctrine.

Non-churched Nominal Christian – Has belief in basic Christian doctrines, but with no or remote church connection.

Churched Nominal Christian – Participates in church but is not regenerated.

  • Semi-active moralist – Respectably moral whose religion is without assurance and is all a matter of duty.

  • Active self-righteous – Very committed and involved in the church, with assurance of salvation based on good works.

Awakened Sinner – Stirred and convicted over his sin but without gospel peace yet.

  • Curious – Stirred up mainly in an intellectual way, full of questions and diligent in study.

  • Convicted with false peace – Without understanding the gospel, has been told that by walking an aisle, praying a prayer, or doing something, he is now right with God.

  • Comfortless – Extremely aware of sins but not accepting or understanding the gospel of grace.

Apostate – Once active in the church but who has repudiated the faith without regrets.

Christians

New Believer – Recently converted.

  • Doubtful – Has many fears and hesitancies about his new faith.

  • Eager – Beginning with joy and confidence and a zeal to learn and serve.

  • Overzealous – Has become somewhat proud and judgmental of others, and is overconfident of his own abilities.

Mature/growing – Passes through nearly all of the basic conditions named below, but progresses through them because he responds quickly to pastoral treatment or he knows how to treat himself.

Afflicted – Lives under a burden or trouble that saps spiritual strength. (Generally, we call a person afflicted who has not brought the trouble on himself).

  • Physically afflicted – Experiencing bodily decay (the sick, the elderly, the disabled)

  • Dying

  • Bereaved – Has lost a loved one or experienced some other major loss (a home through a fire, etc.)

  • Lonely

  • Persecuted/Abused

  • Poor/economic troubles

  • Desertion – Spiritually dry through the action of God who removes a sense of His nearness despite the use of the means of grace.

Tempted – Struggling with a sin or sins which are remaining attractive and strong.

  • Overtaken – Tempted largely in the realm of thoughts and desires.

  • Taken over – A sin has become addictive behavior.

Immature – A spiritual baby, who should be growing, but who is not.

  • Undisciplined – Simply lazy in using the means of grace and in using gifts for ministry.

  • Self-satisfied – Pride has choked growth, complacency and he has become perhaps cynical and scornful of many other Christians.

  • Unbalanced – Has had either the intellectual, the emotional, or the volitional aspect of his faith become overemphasized.

  • Devotees of eccentric doctrines – Has become absorbed in a distorted teaching that hurts spiritual growth.

Depressed – is not only experiencing negative feelings, but is also shirking Christian duties and being disobedient. (Note: If a person is a new believer, or tempted, or afflicted, or immature, and does not get proper treatment, he will become spiritually depressed. Besides these conditions, the following problems can lead to depression).

  • Anxious – Through worry or fear handled improperly is depressed.

  • Weary – Has become listless and dry through overwork.

  • Angry – Through bitterness or uncontrolled anger handled improperly is depressed.

  • Introspective – Dwells on failures and feelings and lacks assurance.

  • Guilty – A conscience which is wounded and repentance has not been reached.

Backslidden – Has gone beyond depression to a withdrawal from fellowship with God and with the church.

  • Tender – Is still easily convicted of his sins, and susceptible to calls for repentance.

  • Hardening – Has become cynical, scornful, and difficult to convict.

C. WEAVE APPLICATION THROUGHOUT THE SERMON.

1. Use both “running” and “collected” application.

Application is not appended to the end of a sermon—it runs throughout. Nevertheless, a sermon as it progresses, should move to more and more direct and specific application. “Running application” refers to the fact that every biblical principle must be stated immediately in its “practical bearings”. But as the sermon winds to a close, it is important for the preacher to “collect” the applications, recap them, and then drive it home by moving at least one step closer in specifics.

2. Ask direct questions.

The best preachers speak to each listener very personally. That can be done by posing direct questions to the audience, posing inquiries which call for a response in the heart. Ask, “how many of you know that this past week you have twisted the truth or omitted part of the truth in order to look good?” and follow it with a pause. This is far more personal and attention-riveting than a mere statement, “many people twist the truth or tell half-truths to reach their own ends.” Talk to the people; ask direct quotations. Be ready for the occasional person who really will answer you back! But the goal is to have people answer in their minds/hearts—carrying on a dialogue with you.

Anticipate objections and questions.

If you know the people to whom you speak, you will know the kind of objections or questions they will be posing in their hearts in response to your points. So identify those questions and express them. This keeps up the personal dialogue and lends great power to the sermon. For example:

“Now some of you are likely saying, “Yes, that’s great for you, but you have faith. I wish I could believe in God, I have tried, but I just can’t develop faith’! But friend, your real problem is not that you can’t believe in God, but that you are refusing to doubt yourself. You are committed to the “doctrine” of your own competence to run your life. And you believe in it against all the evidence! Come! Admit what you know down deep, that you are not wise and able enough to run your own life. Doubt yourself, and you will begin to move toward faith in God.”

Look at the Puritans for models of this. They were excellent at posing “common objections” and answering them within the body of the sermon.

4. Provide tests for self-examination.

Do not underestimate the sinner’s ability to avoid conviction of sin! Every heart has scores of time-tested subterfuges and excuses by which it can somehow rationalize away any direct confrontation with its own wickedness. As you preach, these are the kinds of thoughts going on in the minds of the listeners:

“Well, that’s easy to say—you don’t have my husband!”

“I suppose that may be true of others, but not of me.”

“I sure wish Sally was here to hear this—she really needs that.”

Therefore, it is important to provide brief “tests” for the listeners. For example:

“Well, perhaps you agree with me—you agree that pride is bad and humility is good, but you think ‘but I don’t have much of a problem with pride.’ Well look at yourself. Are you too shy to witness? Are you too self-conscious to tell people the truth? What is that, but a kind of pride, a fear of looking bad?”

The “tests” of course, are simply “example illustrations”, of the sort that John the Baptist gave his audience in Luke 3.

Don’t pass by the “pliable” moment.

Often there come points in the sermon when it is evident that the audience’s attention is riveted and they are getting something of what Adams calls an “experience” of the truth. Often you can sense that people are coming under conviction. One sign is usually the lack of fidgeting, foot shuffling, and throat clearing. The audience gets more silent and still.

This is a “pliable” or a teachable moment. Don’t let it go past! Don’t be so tied to your outline or notes that you fail to take time to drive home the truth directly and specifically. Perhaps you could pause, and look the people in the eye as they swallow the food you have just fed them.

6. Be affectionate as well as forceful.

Be sure, when you deal very specifically with the behavior and thoughts of people, that you combine an evident love for them with your straight talk about sin. Be both warm and forceful when dealing with personal questions—never ridiculing! If you ridicule a listener for a question he or she has just posed (perhaps) in the heart, you will make yourself appear haughty and unapproachable (and maybe you are!).

7. Use a balance of the many forms of application.

Application includes, at least, a) warning and admonishing, b) encouraging and renewing, c) comforting and soothing, d) urging, pleading, and “stirring up”. There is a dangerous tendency for a preacher to specialize in just one of these. Often this comes because of a bent in temperament or personality. That is, some preachers are temperamentally gentle and reserved, others are light-hearted and optimistic, while others are serious and intense. These temperaments can distort our application of the biblical truth so that we are always majoring in one kind. But over the long haul, that weakens our persuasiveness. People get used to same tone or tenor of voice. It is far more effective when a speaker can move from sweetness and sunshine to clouds and thunder! Let the biblical text control you, not your temperament. “Loud” truth should be communicated as loud, “hard” truth should be communicated as hard, “sweet” truth should be communicated sweetly.

D. CHALLENGE WITH THE COMFORT OF THE GOSPEL

1. What does it take to repent?

a. You need a sense of God’s grace to repent. 

To truly repent, a person certainly needs humility—“emotional poverty”. You must feel and acknowledge the guilt of what you have done and your inability to make it right by your own efforts. But full and true repentance also requires emotional ‘wealth’. You need to have a hope and assurance of God’s commitment to you, his love and mercy toward you. Anyone who simply despairs under sin, who says, “I’m too bad, too terrible for God or anyone to forgive me” is (ironically) guilty of unbelief. In some ways, to be either proud or despondent is to refuse to see Christ as Savior and to insist on being your own Savior. John Newton once wrote to a depressed man:

You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness…You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You then express not only a low opinion of yourself, but also too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer…You complain about your sin, but when we examine your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of” (letters, Vol II).

Notice that Newton says that to despair of God’s grace (i.e. that it is unable to forgive and receive someone as bad as you are) is really a form of self-righteousness. How so? It is a refusal to accept God’s favor on the basis of mercy. A heart that says, “if I haven’t earned it, I won’t take it as a gift!” (or that says, “if I flagellate myself for a long time, then it will atone for what I’ve done) is as deeply self-righteous as the heart of a proud Pharisee. It wants Jesus to be an example and a Rewarder of the Righteous, but not to be a gracious Savior.

b. You need a sense of God’s grace even to become convicted.

Not only that, but it is not really possible to be honest about how sinful you are unless you have confidence that God loves you. If you base your self-image on your record and performance, it will be traumatic to admit the extent of your sinfulness. You will be in denial, rationalizing and ‘screening out’ evidence of deep character flaws. Unless you believe that “the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds” you, you will not be able to repent. It takes the good news of the gospel as much as the bad news to lead our hearts to admit what we really are.

c. The “joyful fear” of repentance.

In Psalm 130:4 we read the remarkable verse: “but with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.” This is one of the most striking verses in the Bible. The Psalmist says that forgiveness, pardon, and grace leads to an increase in the “fear” of the Lord. What does this mean? “Servile fear [being scared] would have been diminished, not increased, by forgiveness…The true sense of the ‘fear of the Lord’ in the Old Testament…implies relationship” (Kidner, p. 446). So this term “fear” would best be defined as: “Joyful awe and wonder before the transcendent greatness of who God is”. And here in Psalm 130, it is the prospect of grace and mercy that leads the author into joyful and humble submission. This “fear” then is paradoxical. The more we experience grace and forgiveness and love, the more we get out of ourselves, the more we bow to Him in amazed, wondering submission to His greatness. When we really understand that we are forgiven, it does not lead to ‘loose living’ or independence, but to respectful surrender to His sovereignty. If we had earned our salvation, our lives would still be our own! He’d owe us something. But since our salvation is by free grace, due totally to his love, then there is nothing He cannot ask of us. We are not our own. It is the joy that brings about this submission.

2. The joyful fear of preaching.

Since a) we can’t really even psychologically admit the magnitude of our sin if we don’t know there is hope of salvation, and since b) self-hatred is basically a form of self-righteousness—how does that effect preaching? When we preach, we need to challenge with the comfort of the gospel. Put another way—the thing that most comfort us (the free, unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus) should be the thing that most convicts us. The language of preaching should not be: “unless you clean up your act, you will never get the love of God” but “how on earth can you treat this loving God like this?” The first approach is: “repent or God will drop you!” The second approach is: “repent for spurning the God whose Son died so you would never lose Him!”

The first approach actually encourages self-righteousness. It tries to convict us by increasing self-centeredness, by saying, “the sinfulness of your sin is that it is going to make you unhappy! Better get rid of it or you won’t be blessed.” Ironically, this only gets you to hate yourself (for being a failure) and to hate the consequences of the sin (“this is going to ruin me!”) rather than the sin itself for what it is in itself, a violation of God.

The second approach increases Christ-centeredness, saying, “the sinfulness of your sin is that it rejects the sacrificial love of Christ. He died so you wouldn’t do this sin!” While the first approach tends toward hating myself rather than the sin, this approach tends to help be hate the sin rather than myself. If the focus is on the death of Christ for me, and of His unconditional commitment to me, then I see my own value to Him, and that makes the sin worse! It is trampling on His unconditional love. It is savaging the heart of the one who loved me unconditionally.

The preacher who convicts out of the comfort, who goes for ‘joyful fear’ instead of ‘servile fear’ will find that he can be extremely strong and forceful in his admonitions. This is not a ‘therapeutic’ approach. Paul said, “Do you not realize…that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

SOURCE: Personal Notes from Lecture #6 By Dr. Tim Keller at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. i the early 2000’s.

 

 

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