With apologies to Pangur Ban

There is no time I am happier now
Than about 5:30 in the morning
My morning mug, my little book…
Sometimes I think it isn’t love of scripture
That causes me to study
But love of study that pulls me to the scriptures

What truth is more certain
Than holy scripture?
What is so important, valuable
That a man must make space
For peace and quiet
To read, and do more than read?

Oh Lord, I would be happy
To sit like this forever.
An hour a day or ten, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t know if I’m called to be a pastor
If evangelism is the standard, I have seen no converts.
But one year or ten working my headache job
Coming home to noise and laughter
And rising up early to behold wondrous things…
It is enough; I am content.

Skipping Church

I don’t think I’ll be going to church today.

It’s the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, and I’m a US Army officer, deployed. I know how the service is going to go, and it isn’t going to have much to do with Jesus.

I’m as patriotic as I know how to be, and I feel the weight of the events of that day, though I’m sure I don’t feel it as heavily as some. 9/11 isn’t a harrowing echo in my soul, because I love Jesus more than America.

The United States may still be the greatest nation in the world, if only because we are still the most Christian nation in the world, and even our charlatans must live according to some shadow of Christian principle. We are involved in two wars that may, in some strange sense, be considered acts of charity.

But noble intentions and holy obedience are two different things. And the travesty that happened 10 years ago is nothing, compared to the triumph that happened 2000 years ago. The memory of the twin towers is no substitute for Jesus Christ.

For the armed forces, true Christianity is practiced mostly on the down-low. I’m forbidden to evangelize, except in pre-announced, private settings. People ask me in quiet, personal conversations what kind of religion I practice, and if I will pray for them. As an officer, I can enforce ethical standards, but not explain why those standards must exist.

Meanwhile, in public settings, God is invoked, without any inquiry into the nature and character of this God, without any discussion of what he has done, or what we might owe him. He will come to our aid, in some stabilizing way, because he is God, and we have mentioned him.

On a day like today, when a 10-year milestone falls on the Lord’s day, The service will go like this: Everything is combined to make a display of unity, and the heroes of our war will be remembered. The Creator of the universe will certainly be mentioned. His Son may or may not be referred to, by a brave chaplain who wants to do what’s right. But the redeeming work of the Jesus’ death and resurrection will not be put on full display; it will not be given proper honor on the dearest day of all. There may be a cross, but it will not stand taller than the towers.

I don’t know how many people will think to call that kind of service wrong, or how many will roll their eyes and say I’m making something out of nothing. I am sure, that around the world this kind of subversion of the gospel will be going on, as has been done in many times and places. But I’m not used to it, and I don’t like it. I’ve always been in a place where religion was unregulated. There was always room for a little dissent.

Please pray for the soldiers, and for all the other armed service members. I know many of you do pray, for protection and for strength. But pray also for the condition of our souls. Their bodies are in danger to enemy fire and to privation, but their souls are in danger of anemia and even hellfire. Pray for chaplains to learn to read their Bibles more deeply than they have been, and to see the current of the gospel surging under every text. Pray for leaders to see their sinful nature and look to the cross in repentance. Pray for every converted Christian to learn the gospel deep enough that they may every day, quietly if they must, always preach.

The church in the army is hardly persecuted, but it is asleep.

Radical discontinuity

My meeting with the Mormon evangelists didn’t go all that great yesterday. I don’t mean that anything catastrophic happened, or that my objections were swatted out of the air like so many flies. I still think I have good objections, but my delivery was weak. I stumbled. Frankly, I think I was too conciliatory and put the ball too often in their court. I didn’t want to attack, but neither did I want to stand “as a man at a mark”. And of course, they had their own agenda they wanted to push through in the conversation. Doesn’t it bother you that there are so many different churches that claim to be right? Actually, no it doesn’t. But adding Mormonism to the mix doesn’t help your argument.

However, in conversation, I came across another Mormon distinctive that undermines their position where they expect to support it. The Mormon “gospel,” that is, the story that they’re announcing, is one of apostasy and restoration. The church lost the plot and God replaced it with the church of Latter Day Saints. Here Joe Smith is taking a page from John Nelson Darby’s Dispensational theology. The concept comes from the biblical concept of dispensations – different time periods in which God has set up different systems for relating to man. For instance you could talk about about five major dispensations: Before the fall, from the fall until Abraham, from Abraham til Moses, from Moses until Christ, and the Christian era.

I’m not a scholar of Darby’s dispensationalism, but I believe he had a system that allowed for seven dispensations before the new heaven and new earth were created. And my understanding is that a key aspect of Darbian dispensationalism is that, whatever system God set up for us, we voilated the terms of the covenant, and then God created another one. So you have this flow: God establishes a new dispensation, the covenant community thrives, the covenant community falls into apostasy, God establishes a new dispensation. It’s the book of Judges writ large.

Now at some level, the concept of dispensations, especially the King James phrase (from Ephesians 3:1) “dispensation of grace”, is completely biblical. But for the orthodox, you have to keep two key concepts in mind, otherwise dispensationalism can lead you straight to heresy. Continue reading “Radical discontinuity”

Mormon Trilemma

I have a meeting this afternoon with a couple of Mormon missionaries who stopped by some time last week and asked to talk with me about their, um, gospel. So I’ve been thinking for the last few days about how to get to the heart of the matter with them as quickly as possible.

The difficulty with Mormons is that they appear so much like ordinary evangelical Christians in their culture and lifestyle that it’s difficult to point out something that is blatantly un-Christian, and at the same time, they have distinctive views on history and biblical texts that make it’s easy to point out errors in their beliefs without ever coming to the issue of the gospel. In other words, it’s easy enough for a committed evangelical Christian to see that Mormons aren’t, and so avoid the possibility of being converted accidentally. But it’s very difficult, in polite conversation, to point out to a committed young Mormon that his religion is different from yours even in its essence, and dangerously so.

Questions of Kolob and ancient Indian civilizations notwithstanding, there are actually two theological errors that Mormons partake in. One is a kind of Arianism, which sees the trinity as three separate entities who are unified only in as far as their personal agreement, rather than three persons of the same substance, eternally experiencing a perichoretic unity. In other words, it’s difficult to explain.

The other error is easier to deal with, because the nature of the gospel hinges on it. The Mormon position is that any human who makes an attempt at self-reform according to God’s law can in time improve to a level of perfection. It is a gospel of self-improvement aided by the power of the Holy Spirit, and God’s gracious repeated revelation of the plan for this self-improvement. In other words, Pelagianism.

Mormon Pelagianism isn’t something that Mormons try to hide, though the true doctrines of grace may escape them. How hard is it, really, to hear that you are saved by God working a heart change in you, to which achievement you yourself make no actual contribution? It’s difficult!

I suppose a more thoroughly indoctrinated Calvinist than I could bring the distinction home through a rigorous application of TULIP, but as for myself, I have a hard time remembering what the letters stand for. And the last thing I want to do is to frighten them by appearing like an enraged madman attempting to throttle them with the gospel.

And besides, I think I have an easier way. Continue reading “Mormon Trilemma”

Forgetting to Evangelize

I am beginning to think that the solution to this sort of problem is an increase in the general sort of piety that we are usually to cynical to stand. If the Gospel, particularly my own awareness of my own sin and my own need for a redeemer, happens to get mentioned in most every conversation, everything that follows in the way of evangelism is completely natural. CJ Mahaney, for instance, manages to lay the whole thing open simply by answering “Better than I deserve” whenever somebody asks how he’s doing.