Friday, September 23, 2005

What do miserable Christians sing?

This was the title of the most recent edition of the Sovereign Grace Journal.  The lead article was discussing the loss of the lament in modern Christian worship.  While the Psalms are filled with many songs to be sung by those grieving or feeling abandoned or angry at God, the whole genre is absent from our worship services.

I've come across one song that, while not written for worship, is I think a good example of a modern-day lament.  I've used the song in my personal devotions, and I'm going to try to adopt it in our family devotions.  My children are 5 and 7, so I'm not sure how they'll interpret it, but it will give us a good chance to talk about how to respond in faith when we're mad, or sad, or lonely.

The song is Rich Mullin's Hard to Get.  It's copyright 1998 by Liturgy Legacy.
You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt.
Do you remember when you lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread?
Did you forget about us after you had flown away?
Well, I memorized every word you said.
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While you're up there just playing hard to get.

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin?
We have a love that's not as patient as yours was
Still we do love now and then.
Did you ever know loneliness?
Did you ever know need?
Do you remember just how long a night can get?
When you are barely holding on
And your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in your sweat.
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While you're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows.
And I know you feel our pain.
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained.
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most.
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know....

Is if you who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time?
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind.
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret.
I can't see how you're leading me unless you've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so you've been here all along I guess
It's just your ways and you are just plain hard to get.
I think this song has many fine, lamenting elements.  Written in that dense, informal style so characteristic of Rich Mullins, it expresses fear, frustration, abandonment, doubt.  Yet it is shot through with statements of faith, with the recognition of Jesus' sympathy with our suffering, and submission to his love and leading.

However, at the same time, it is uncomfortable.  It says things that I know are unworthy of God, and ends with a sort of hopeful resignation.  Rather reminiscent of some of the lament Psalms.  Perhaps, just the sort of thing a miserable Christian could sing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Reformation and Conversation

Although I've been thoroughly Reformed in my beliefs for years, I'm a recent arrival to Reformed churches.  For the last decade, my family and I had been deeply ensconced in the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

So, I tend to be very aware of the differences between my old community and my new one.  One of the truly great distinctions of the Reformed folks I find myself around is that they love to talk!  They love to discuss God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church, doctrine, the World ... pick any topic that has any relation to God, and they'll talk about it!  (I should say, we'll talk about it.  I love these people, these truths, this God and these wonderful relationships.)

Dr. Haykin in a recent message given at the chapel at TBS noted that God loves words.  Our Lord is the God Who speaks!  And boy, Reformed also keep on speaking!  There are blogs (Toronto Baptist Seminary, kerux noemata, Cowboyology, Ruminations by the Lake, Christian Thought, tolle lego, even this humble forum), conferences (Carey, FRPS, Sovereign Grace), periodicals (Sovereign Grace Journal) and many, many other forms of communications.  And modern day Reformed conversationalists are simply following in a long established tradition.  Look at the incredible number of books, pamphlets and sermons put out by Luther, Calvin and their kin!

A few weeks back, I was rereading Pilgrim's Progress, and came to the part of the story where Christian and his comrade Hopeful have entered the Enchanted Ground, where to sleep is to perish.  They find themselves struggling to keep their eyes open as they traverse this part of their journey, so Christian says to Hopeful: "Let us keep ourselves awake with good discourse."

That is truly a Reformed suggestion.

Let the good discourse continue!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Calvinism #3: The Courage of Conviction

A personal note today. 

Over the past few todays, in preparing this little series of posting on Calvinism, I've been rereading the little booklet What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism, from Bethlehem Baptist Church.  Mostly, I was looking for those quotes from Augustine, Whitefield, Spurgeon and others that I've included in the previous posts.

Well, be careful what you read and what you type.  God might just use it to convict your heart and redirect your life.

First, being a huge fan of Spurgeon's teaching, I was quite affected by this quote from WWBA5PC:
Spurgeon started a college for pastors and was intent that the key to being a worthy teacher in the church was to grasp these doctrines of grace:

Arminianism is thus guilty of confusing doctrines and of acting as an obstruction to a clear and lucid grasp of the Scripture; because it misstates or ignores the eternal purpose of God, it dislocates the meaning of the whole plan of redemption.  Indeed confusion is inevitable apart from this foundational truth [of election].

Without it there is a lack of unity of thought, and generally speaking they have no idea whatever of a system of divinity.  It is almost impossible to make a man a theologian unless you begin with this [doctrine of election].  You may if you please put a young believer in college for years, but unless you shew him this ground-plan of the everlasting covenant, he will make little progress, because his studies do not cohere, he does not see how one truth fits with another, and how all truths must harmonize together...

This coherence that election provides to the Bible has indeed been foundational for me.  In understanding God's electing sovereignty, much of what was previously incomprehensible within the Bible now makes sense: the call of Abraham, the choosing of the nation of Israel, the entire passage of Romans 9, etc.

While working through these thoughts, I also read this post from Clint Humfrey about the Toronto Baptist Seminary, where amongst other details he describes it as:
the only school in Canada that explicitly emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, particularly soteriology. This has been popularly called 'Calvinism' but the emphasis is larger than the label.

I thought about my own studies at Tyndale Seminary, where I've been studying part time for the last year.  I really enjoyed the Greek classes, but was concerned that in some of the other courses there was a lack of Bible-centredness.  The experience of another close friend at this school led me to understand that this lack would likely become more significant as I went forward.  I may very well be painting with an overly-broad brush, so don't take my comments as a wholesale criticism of the school ... these are my personal thoughts and experiences and may not correspond to most peoples' encounters with the school.

The final confirming note came from my rereading the last chapter of Piper's book Brothers, We Are NOT Professionals.  God had used this book 1.5 years ago to totally change the direction of my life and send me to the seminary.  Now He used it again to change the school I was in.

The last chapter of this excellent book, called "Brothers, Pray for the Seminaries", says this:
We cannot overemphasize the importance of our seminaries in shaping the theology and spirit of the churches and denominations and missionary enterprise.  The tone of the classrooms and teachers exerts profound effect on the tone of our pupils.  What the teachers are passionate about will by and large be the passions of our younger pastors.  What they neglect will likely be neglected in the pulpits.

When I was choosing a seminary, someone gave me good advice.  "A seminary is one thing" -- he told me, "faculty.  Do not choose a denomination or a library or a location.  Choose a great faculty.  Everything else is incidental."  By "great faculty" he, of course, did not mean mere charismatic personalities.  He meant that wonderful combination of passion for God, for truth, for the church, and for the perishing, along with a deep understanding of God and His Word, a high esteem for doctrinal truth and careful interpretation and exposition of the infallible Bible.  (pp. 261-262)
That was enough for me.  With the help of my pastor, on the very last day of registration, I've transferred from Tyndale to TBS.  I don't want to be a great scholar.  I don't want to be known as an expert in any given field.  I want to passionately love God, His church, His Word, and the lost!  I want to accurately preach and teach the transforming truths of the Bible, to model Christlikeness, and to delight in God's glory in and through his global body and local church!

Now, if only I could get the textbooks in time......

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Calvinism #2: Who needs evangelism?

I used to teach courses both at my church and my at-work Bible study on evangelism.  Lifestyle evangelism, explaining the gospel, the Roman Road, the Bridge to Life, etc.  But one part that always troubled me was the idea of asking people to believe something.  To choose to believe something.

I mean, belief is not a choice.  If I tell you that 2+2=4, you don't choose to believe or not.  You simply believe, or you don't.  When talking with my sister-in-law (see previous post) and her husband, I used her husband's blue shirt as an example.

To her husband I said, "Jeff, I know your shirt appears to you to be blue.  But I tell you it's really red.  And it's really important that you believe that it's red.  In fact, you will suffer eternal torment unless you come to believe that your shirt is red."  But if he looks at his shirt, and it still looks blue to him, what is he going to do?  Pretend it looks red?  Try to convince himself that it's red?  If he really believes that he will suffer, but the shirt still looks blue, what is he to do?

(Please don't push my example too far.  I know it's a grossly imperfect model of believing in the claims of Jesus.  All I'm trying to illustrate is that people don't choose to believe.  They simply believe or they don't.)

This contradiction, asking people to believe in the Gospel but knowing that belief is not a choice, drove me to the Scriptures.  The result of many months of work was another course called "The Theology of Evangelism", which was basically an introduction to the 5 doctrines of grace and their consequences for personal evangelism.  It's funny how when some Christians first encounter Calvinism, they think it makes evangelism unnecessary.  However, the truths of God's election and irresistable grace are not obstacles to evangelism, they are the hope of evangelism!  What other hope do we have for reaching the lost but that God Himself will draw in unstoppable power?

John Piper tells a story about a missionary he and his wife heard at an Urbana conference.  Both of them were young, rather tentative Calvinists.  A long-time missionary stood before the crowd and said "Twenty years ago, if I had been a Calvinist, I would never have gone to the mission field."  This caused their hearts to sink.  And then he said, "Now, after twenty years of dealing with the hardness of the human heart, I could never remain on the mission field if I were not a Calvinist."

Much earlier (centuries before Calvin!), Augustine noted in one of his letters the hope that irresistable grace brings to evangelism:
If, as I prefer to think in your case, you agree with us in supposing that we are doing our duty in praying to God, as our custom is, for them that refuse to believe, that they may be willing to believe and for those who resist and oppose his law and doctrine, that they may believe and follow it.  If you agree with us in thinking that we are doing our duty in giving thanks to God, as is our custom, for such people when they have been converted ... then you are surely bound to admit that the wills of men are preveniently moved by the grace of God, and that it is God who makes them to will the good which they refused; for it is God whom we ask so to do, and we know that it is meet and right to give thanks to him for so doing...
A final quote to end today's instalment.  George Whitefield was a great evangelist in the 18th century, drawing tens of thousands of people to Jesus.  He pleaded with John Wesley not to oppose the doctrines of Calvinism:
I cannot bear the thoughts of opposing you: but how can I avoid it, if you go about (as your brother Charles once said) to drive John Calvin out of Bristol.  Alas, I never read anything that Calvin wrote; my doctrines I had from Christ and His apostles; I was taught them of God.  (Arnold Dalimore, GEORGE WHITEFIELD 1, p. 574)
It was his belief in this glorious doctrine that enabled his evangelism:
The doctrines of our election, and free justification in Christ Jesus are daily more and more pressed upon my heart.  They fill my soul with a holy fire and afford me great confidence in God my Saviour.

I hope we shall catch fire from each other, and that there will be a holy emulation amongst us, who shall most debase man and exalt the Lord Jesus.  Nothing but the doctrines of the Reformation can do this.  All others leave freewill in man and make him, in part at least, a saviour to himself.  My soul, come not thou near the secret of those who teach such things ... I know Christ is all in all.  Man is nothing: he hath a free will to go to hell, but none to go to heaven, till God worketh in him to will and to do his good pleasure.

Oh the excellency of the doctrine of election and of the saints' final perseverance!  I am persuaded, til a man comes to believe and feel these important truths, he cannot come out of himself, but when convinced of these and assured of their application to his own heart, he then walks by faith indeed!  (Dalimore, p. 407)
(Quotes from Augustine and Whitefield are drawn from Bethlehem Baptist Church's What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism.)

Go and take the Gospel to those around you, asking God to open their eyes and effectually call them!

Monday, September 05, 2005

a TULIP by any other name...

Yesterday, my wife and I were discussing "Calvinism" with my sister-in-law and her husband.  They are both believers, but certainly do not embrace a Calvinist viewpoint.  In response to my SIL's question, I described the 5 points summarizing this doctrine of grace, using the TULIP acronym.

For those unfamiliar with TULIP, the 5 points are:
Total depravity: we are incapable of responding positively to God ("dead in your trespasses and sins", Eph 2:1, Col 2:13)
Unconditional election: God sovereignly chose those whom he would grant the gift of faith before any of us were created ("For he chose us in him before the creation of the world ... he predestined us to be adopted as his sons", Eph 1:4-5)
Limited atonement: Jesus on the cross absorbed the penalty for the all the sins of all the elect, purchasing not only their forgiveness but even the mercy that would effectually draw them to himself ("with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation", Rev. 5:9)
Irresistable grace: when God calls his elect, he overcomes the rebellion of their hearts and brings them to faith so that they are saved ("children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God", John 1:12)
Perseverance (or Preservation) of the saints: those who are called by the irresistable grace of God cannot lose their salvation but will endure to the end ("I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish", John 10:27)

(I am hugely indebted to John Piper and the staff of Bethlehem Baptist Church for their little booklet What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism for a clear explanation of these ideas and approach toward introducing people to them.  You can find the booklet on their website ( )

My SIL's response was "I have a problem with every one of those points."  Which led to a energetic (but friendly) discussion of these ideas.

Over the next few days I'm going to post some thoughts and experiences I've had regarding these five points and the theology behind them.  But I'd love to hear from others about their thoughts and experiences regarding these distinctives.

Let me close this post with a couple of significant quotes from the What We Believe booklet:

George Mueller, an amazing man of faith and founder of several orphanages in Britain in the 1800's:
Before the period [when I came to prize the Bible alone as my standard of judgment] I had been much opposed to the doctrines of election, particular redemption (i.e. limited atonement), and final persevering grace.  But now I was brought to examine these precious truths by the Word of God.  Being made willing to have no glory of my own in the conversion of sinners, but to consider myself merely an instrument; and being made willing to receive what the Scriptures said, I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths.

To my great astonishment I found that the passages which speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those which speak apparently against these truths; and even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines.

As to the effect which my belief in these doctrines had on me, I am constrained to state for God's glory, that though I am still exceedingly weak, and by no means so dead to the lusts of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, as I might be, and as I ought to be, yet, by the grace of God, I have walked more closely with Him since that period.  My life has not been so variable, and I may say that I have lived much more for God than before.  (Autobiography, pp. 33-34)

Charles Spurgeon:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism.  It is a nickname to call it Calvinism: Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.  I do not believe we can preach the gospel ... unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel unless we base i upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the Cross; nor can I comprehend the gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called (Autobiography 1, p. 168)