Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bishop T.D. Jakes, Sound Doctrine, and Sound Teaching

T.D. Jakes, left, being interviewed by Mark Driscoll, right,
with host James MacDonald at "The Elephant Room" broadcast
Bishop T.D. Jakes, a well known preacher and pastor of "The Potter's House" in Texas, shared that he now holds a trinitarian view of God in line with historic orthodoxy, as opposed to a former view that was shaped by the "Oneness" Pentecostal tradition. This announcement was made during the broadcast of "The Elephant Room," an annual dialog event put together by James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel and "Walk in the Word" Ministries. This report and video from Baptist Press tells the story and its context.

I rejoice anytime I hear someone has embraced good doctrine. Some were hesitant to appear in "The Elephant Room" this time when Bishop Jakes was announced as a participant, due to his previously known position on the Trinity. The video and follow up that has come from the event celebrates the unity between Jakes and others, and rightly emphasizes the need for conversations before separations and public criticisms.

However, I am not sure that the embrace or endorsement of good theology on this subject moves us to a point of endorsing Bishop Jakes' ministry, or anyone else's ministry. There are many who would publicly affirm all the tenets of the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, perhaps even affirming historic Reformational truths, who nonetheless in their teaching ministry lead others away from right belief or right practice. For example, Bishop Jakes is a classical Pentecostal, and his church's doctrinal statement affirms the necessity of speaking in tongues as the sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  This is a significant departure from historic orthodoxy (although one held by a large number of Christians today).  Further, and more troubling to many, his teaching has historically upheld ideas such as "positive confession" and guarantees of wealth and health to believers.  He has been a close associate of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paul and Jan Crouch, and others whose teachings have been at best problematic, and at worst heretical, over the years.

I can rejoice that Bishop Jakes has made a statement affirming the three persons of the Godhead, and has always taught salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. However I would still caution believers that right doctrine in these areas does not equal right teaching on the Christian's life, walk, or faith. Acceptance of what he has taught in the past could be detrimental to a person's spiritual maturity. He may well be revising his teaching, and I would be happy to follow up with that good news. Until then, we are all called to search the Scriptures when confronted with unfamiliar or new teaching, to see if these things are really so (Acts 17:11).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Q & A: Wacky Politics

I have been asked a number of times about who I favor in the upcoming contest for President.  As a pastor, I cannot officially endorse for the church any candidate.  I can have and state a personal opinion, and do privately.  I must also admit that I am a recovering political junkie--I enjoy politics as a study and have strong opinions on these issues, but have come to see the futility of hoping that politics and politicians will bring real change.  So let me answer more generally with my opinion about the current state of the race.

Election seasons always have their unique frustrations, and this one is no exception.  For Democratic-leaning Christians, there is no real contest going on, only the challenge of supporting the President who has presided over a very bad four years economically ("It was Bush's and the Republicans' fault" will no doubt be a defense), and who supports abortion rights ("But he is compassionate toward the poor, and isn't that just as important? You can't look at a single issue!" will be the defense here).  I cannot and will not vote for a President who, for whatever reason, supports an absolute "right" to kill infants in the womb as a matter of choice.  I know some good Christians will argue that compassion for the suffering, poor, and dying should be of equal importance.  In my view, they are not, because such compassion is being measured in sliding terms.  We may not be giving enough aid to sufferers, but we are not giving others the freedom to kill them in one vicious act. 

Christians who lean Republican will mock their Democratic brothers and sisters, but this year they face some equally daunting challenges.  Look who is still in the race to be their nominee.

There is the polished businessman whose views have changed as his aspirations have grown.  He can't make the case for his own election as well as others seem to do.  Oh, and his faith, which he says is vital to who he is, is a cult whose views on salvation are objectionable to Christians, and whose views on early American history, multiple gods, celestial polygame, and spirit babies are, frankly, pretty weird.  He is highly moral, devoted to his wife, and says the right things, now.  Can he win?

There is the committed pro-life former senator who says he is the only true conservative in the race, but who spent 20 years in congress voting for spending and earmarks that conservatives decry now as wasteful.  He lost his last election badly (it was a Democratic sweep that year in his state).  He is a committed, traditional Roman Catholic.  He also does not excite lots of interest outside his base.  He lost the first contest on the night it was held, but now has been declared the winner--when it really doesn't change that much.  His numbers are fading, and no one seems to be paying attention to his excellent points.  Can he win?

There is the man who has finished second, then third, then fourth in contests so far, the "true conservative" who is a libertarian, who is pro-life but wants the states to deal with it, and wants all troops home until we are actually attacked.  He plans to cut a trillion dollars of spending in his first year in office, get out of health care, education, foreign aid, private behavior (legalizing marijuana, for example and ending any war on drugs), and protect traditional marriage.  His economics resonate with many.  But his "America First" foreign policy is a page out of pre-World War 2 isolationism, and could easily set the stage for another Germany or Japan to arise.  He says we will protect ourselves--but would we allow another Holocaust?  Can he win?

Finally there is the former Speaker of the House, who resigned in defeat and more than a little disgrace, has reinvented himself as a man of ideas, and is the best debater out there.  Strongly identified with conservative ideas, his personal life has been as tawdry as the other party's former president that seemed to set the modern standard for double standards.  His former co-workers do not support him, and recently he suggested that he would support colonization of the moon and once 13,000 people were there (the legal minimum apparently) they could petition to become a US state.  With ideas like that coming when you least expect them, and with his legendary ability to explode, can he win?

Do you vote for the man who is the most successful, the most consistently moral, the most radical, the smartest, or the one who can win?

I am eternally grateful to be a pastor and not a politician.  After all, I represent the one who offers change you can believe in!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Little More about Lot: The Power of Negative Choices

Choices are more powerful than we sometimes understand. Having looked at Lot's desolation and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, we've witnessed the power of negative choices in one believer's life. The effects were cumulative--one choice tends to build toward another, until one's judgment and ability to choose differently is so diminished as to require divine intervention. In the New Testament, Paul talks about giving Satan a "foothold" in our lives through sinful choices (see, for example Ephesians 4:27 and its context). Lot was so conditioned by his continual choices that, in the face of Sodom's imminent destruction, "he lingered" and had to be dragged out of town due to the mercy of the Lord. I am praying that the Lord will open my eyes to any sinful patterns in my choosing, and cause me to run to him for forgiveness and the strength I lack to choose rightly. You and I may need other believers to help us make and keep making those good choices. Get into community where we can encourage each other bo live God's way, making choices that honor him above all. I'm reminded of an old saying from the preachers of my youth, about sowing (planting) and reaping (harvesting):
Sow a thought; reap an action.
Sow an action; reap a habit.
Sow a habit; reap a character.

Sow a character; reap a destiny.

Sadly, this proved true with Lot's life.  And it may prove true in ours.  But our God is more powerful than bad choices, and his Spirit can set people free--even from themselves. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King - I Have A Dream Speech - August 28, 1963

If you never saw the speech that defines both the civil rights movement in America and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, here it is.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Pre-Sermon Preparation

We are returning to Genesis tomorrow, and to a text that would not be the place I would normally start (or restart) a series, but it is where we are.  We will be looking at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the concluding chapter of Lot's sad biography.  It is even more sad when you realize that Lot was a follower of the Lord.

Up to this point, we have been able to read entire texts every morning, but as we move into the longer narratives, this will not always be possible.  Tomorrow is a case where I will not be able to read the text as a whole as we study.  So I am asking you to consider some "pre-sermon preparation."

For anyone who would like to be better prepared for tomorrow's sermon, may I suggest the following?

  • Read Genesis 19 in its entirety.
  • Look back at the end of ch. 18 to see how Abraham had prayed about this very situation.
  • Note the major issues you discover as you read, and spend a moment reflecting on them.  What questions come to mind?
  • Ask God to prepare me to speak clearly to the important "take aways" from the text, and to prepare your heart to receive them.
This is not an easy passage to preach, and I already know I cannot faithfully expound every idea and  subject on which it teaches.  I know that a number of Grace Group leaders are already preparing for good discussion following; I hope that they can deal with the material I have to leave out!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Q & A: Should Christians get tattoos when the Bible says they are bad?

This looks painful (not referring to
 the crown of thorns, but the tattoo),
but I don't know if this is what
 Jesus looked like.
In Leviticus 19:28, Moses wrote the following command of the LORD:  "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD" (ESV).  Two chapters later the idea of making cuts on the body is linked with making bald patches on the head (Leviticus 21:5).  These practices were commonly used by the nations surrounding Israel during times of mourning, and often were associated with invoking the idols worshiped by those nations.  Was Moses laying down a universal principle, or one that only applied the particular context of the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant?

The context of the prohibition (Leviticus 19) involves some other prohibitions that would seem to be timeless, such as not making your daughter become a prostitute, not interpreting omens or telling fortunes .  But it also includes not sowing two kinds of seed in a field, not eating meat with blood in it, not eating fruit off of trees until the fourth year of their planting, and keeping the Sabbath.  Some of these, at least, pertained only to Israel.  My previous post on the Law probably will let you know where I go with this.  These commands were part of an overall covenant with the nation of Israel to establish them as God's unique people, and to spell out the ways they were to maintain that uniqueness.  Some of those ways were clear reflections of the morality of God (the Ten Commandments).  Others were ways that obedience to God's specific command was to show Israel's submission to God, and to mark them out before the nations as unique (dietary and clothing regulations, for example).  Tattoos were a cultural marker of the other nations who thought that marking themselves while in mourning or in devotion to their idols, along with shaving parts of their heads, cutting themselves, and marring their beards would gain the idol's favor.  Nothing about Israel was to communicate that God worked in these ways.  So, such practices were banned by Yahweh for his people.

We live under a different covenant, and in times where tattoos are not associated with idolatry.  Therefore, the Levitical prohibition is not binding today, any more than I would consider the prohibition on using two kinds of seed in the same field to be binding on farmers today.

Tattoos can be painful, sometimes reflect poor judgment (having "Stella" tattooed on your chest can be problematic if you and Stella break up), and may occasionally have a negative impact on your job prospects if they are visible.  They can be beautiful and artistic as well, and may tell a story or remind someone of a key moment or promise.  They are not, in and of themselves, sinful or forbidden to the Christian.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Q & A: The Law of Moses and the Christian

Question: "Why do we still accept many parts of Mosaic law, yet reject others because of Christ's death?  Who determines this (i.e.- sacrifices, ceremonial rituals, etc.)?"

Most Christians see a relationship between the Law as it was given to Moses and what we believe.  Figuring out that relationship, however, has proven difficult over time.  The books of Galatians and Hebrews establish that the sacrificial system and regulations of the Mosaic Law have been made obsolete by the sacrifice of Jesus.  But do we continue to keep the commandments?  And do God's prescribed societal regulations and criminal punishments apply today?

Many look at the Old Testament law as having 3 distinct components.  There is the moral law, focused primarily in the ten commandments.  Then there is the sacrificial/ceremonial law, which includes the rituals related to offerings, feasts, and Jewish worship.  Finally there is the "civil" law--regulations regarding society that are not "religious" in nature--such as the regulations punishing crimes and establishing restitution.  For those who accept this three-fold distinction, the question becomes how much or which parts of this law applies today (some people don't think that you should separate the civil and ceremonial, but see only two sections to the Law).

Traditionally, most Christians have said that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Law ended with the end of the nation of Israel's role as God's nation under the Old Covenant.  The beginning of the New Covenant at the cross is usually seen as the point of the end (some argue for Pentecost and the official "birth" of the NT church--God's new people).  The sacrifices and observances of Mosaic Law have been superseded by the work of Jesus, and the as a people of God, the church no longer is a distinct society or nation with its own civil laws.  The moral law, however, continues.  The great challenge of this view is how to apply it--specifically in cases like the fourth commandment--"remember the Sabbath day."  Out of this theology has come a plethora of interpretations, from the idea that all of life is now the Sabbath, to Sunday being a Sabbath we should keep (with sharp disagreements as to how to keep it), to Saturday still being the Sabbath (Seventh Day Adventists, and a smaller group of Seventh Day Baptists).  If the moral law continues, then this commandment should continue as well.

A smaller but vocal group of Christians have sought to argue that only the ceremonial part of the law should be seen as passing away.  These are "theonomists (which means God's law)," who believe we should still follow many Old Testament civil regulations today, as well as the moral law.  They would argue that if adultery or homosexuality are still condemned by the moral law of God, the punishment that society should inflict is the same as God called for in Israel--death.  Theonomy is a form of post-millennialism, and most theonomists believe that in the coming future kingdom, the Church will establish God's civil law over the earth.  They disagree among themselves on the extent to which these laws should or can be applied today.

There are those who argue that there is no "law" anymore, that we are in an age of grace alone, and any talk about commandments, even moral ones, is obsolete.  All three portions of the Law (as divided above) are gone.  These people are usually called "antinomians" (meaning opposing Law) and it is a viewpoint that has never gained approval in orthodox Christianity.

I suppose it isn't surprising, but I don't hold any of these views.  Antinomianism ignores the clear restatements of much of the ten commandment material in the New Testament.  Theonomists are wrong, I believe, in their triumphal post-millennialism that expects to see the Church take over the world before Christ's return, and in their attempts to link punishments Israel inflicted for crimes and sins to God's eternal purpose--even God did not demand these punishments at all times in the Old Testament.  The traditional view has been the majority view among Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, but as the example of the Sabbath points out, there is no agreement as to how moral law should be applied or understood--at least in that case.

I think a greater error is made in trying to divide the law into parts.  You do not see this Moral/Ceremonial/Civil distinction anywhere in the text.  Laws on sexual sin and mixing crops in fields or kinds of material in garments occur together.  Even Exodus 20 includes both the ten commandments and other instructions of seemingly lesser significance but treats them equally.   And of course, if the ten commandments represent moral teaching for all time, then those of us who are not sabbatarians are willfully violating God's standard of holiness.

My own understanding is that the moral law of God stems from the holy character of God, and thus moral action and attitude will be the same before the Mosaic Law, during it, and afterwards.  While the Law of Moses had a specific purpose in highlighting the nature of both holiness and sin, there was morality before Moses wrote down the Law.  God judged people as sinners from the first sin onward--meaning there was morality and immorality.  The Law of Moses was a covenant--the Old Covenant.  It had a beginning and an end.  It was, according to Romans 5-8, weak, unable to save, and brought death.  It has been superseded by the New Covenant established by the blood of Jesus.

God's eternal standards were revealed prior to Moses through God's revelations to people in that era, from Adam to Seth to Enoch to Methuselah to Noah to Shem to Abram and the patriarchs.  His eternal norms were codified in the Mosaic Law as a covenant was established with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  That covenant was not kept by Israel, and even in its final days God announced he would make a New Covenant.  Jesus came to save sinners through this New Covenant, and through His death and resurrection he established it.

This New Covenant also reveals God's eternal standards.  Jesus summarized them in what we call the Great Commandment.  "And he said to them"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:37-40).  He also said that he was giving a "new" commandment to his followers:  "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34-35).  Romans 8:2 says that "the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and death (a reference to the effects of the Law of Moses)."  In Galatians 5:1 Paul writes, "For freedom (from Mosaic Law) Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."  But in 6:2 he does not say that all law is bad; instead he writes, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."

I believe the case is very strong that you see God's moral will revealed clearly in Jesus' three statements, which would be true in all eras:
  1. Love God supremely.
  2. Love others unselfishly.
  3. Love God's people in the way Jesus loves us.
This would certainly fulfill all core issues of every part of the Mosaic Law.  For example, the Sabbath as instituted in the Mosaic Law was a means by which Israel showed their loving submission to him and trust in his provision.  It is not reiterated in the New Testament because God sovereignly chose not to include this or many other specifics that were to mark out Israel as a nation.

Someone might object that this seems too "positive."  Where is all the negative--the "Thou shalt NOT" stuff?  But anyone who understands the nature of love knows that if we love someone, there will be certain actions that we will not do because of our love.  

We no longer follow the Mosaic code, but the moral "law" behind it animates the New Covenant just as it did the Old.  In fact, this is the Law that is written on our hearts by God himself (the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:33, see also Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16).  The new covenant law is the law of Christ.

ADDENDUM:  This answer to this question is not everything we should know or believe about the Law of Moses, its purposes and its uses.  It is only an attempt to answer the question as to the place of the Mosaic Law as a continuing requirement for the Christian.