Why the American church needs Acts

pentecost

I’m beginning to teach the the book of Acts, and the more I study the more I’m convinced of its relevance for today’s church. Of course, all Scripture is relevant. Always. But in light of certain American evangelical tendencies, the message of Acts is urgent. Here are four reasons why the American church needs Acts:

So we can get back to the basics. The church today often attempts to grow by human innovation, worldly wisdom, trends and fads. Acts shows us how the first church grew. God acted through godly men who preached God’s Word by God’s Spirit. To be faithful, we need to get back to the principles that drove the apostles. It is a beautiful simplicity.

So we will stand up for the truth. In an age where no one wants to offend anyone, and everyone is hung up by this idea of “tolerance,” Acts is a fresh supply of reality. We need to be reminded of the boldness of Peter and the rational, engaging argumentation of Paul. Let’s remember that there is such a thing as truth, that we are not the dummies for preaching it, and that there’s a mass of humanity that needs to hear it.

Also, under this heading, we need to be reminded that the truth offends. It does. But it also saves. Peter’s message about the risen Christ was met with repentance and three thousand hearers that day were “cut to the heart” (2:37) and added to the church. Stephen’s message about the risen Christ was met with a murderous rage. Peter and Stephen preached the same Christ.There’s a lesson to be learned here: truth will unite God’s people to the church and at the same time will instigate opposition to it. It is outside our capacity to determine how people respond to truth. It is our duty to preach it.

To help us grow thicker skin. The American church is flabby and in great need of some spiritual muscle. The church needs to recapture the vision of holy grit, tough compassion, relentless love in the face of opposition. We give up too easily, back down too frequently, are offended too often, and discouraged too much. Too much fluff. The church in Acts shows us what thick skin looks like, what it means to have a spine, what manly mature Christianity looks like. Not many of us are willing to say to the governing authorities “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20) or how many of us have witnessed fellow believers “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (5:41)? Too few, I think. May the Holy Spirit make us tough!

Opposition was real in Acts, and as we faithfully and boldly proclaim the gospel, we will face it. The tenacity of the apostles in Acts inspires us to face a grim and hostile reality.

To remind us of divine power. Because we have become so accustomed to manipulative ministry—trying to manipulate people into following Christ with human means—we need to remember that there is such a thing as divine power. Acts shows us that Jesus is alive, that he rules as king on high, that he is commanding his forces and moving. If Luke is the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Acts is the story of his heavenly ministry as Head of the church. He still sits at the right hand of God, he still holds all authority in heaven and earth, and he is still building his church. The more we depend on his divine power, the better off we’ll be.

To know God

J.I. Packer’s opening to the third chapter of his classic Knowing God is a great reminder to get back to the basics. We exist to know God. Start there. Live there. End there.

 “What were we made for? To know God.

What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God.

What is the ‘eternal life that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. ‘This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (Jn. 17:3).

What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment than anything else? Knowledge of God. ‘This is what the Lord says: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me’ (Jer. 9:23-24).

What, of all the states God ever sees man in, gives God most pleasure? Knowledge of himself. ‘I desired…the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,’ says God (Hos. 6:6).”

 

Book Highlight: “Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ” by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley

prepared by grace

I got this book about a week ago. The simple titled made me curious, and after reading the introduction (by Sinclair Ferguson) I was sold. The back has endorsements from Derek Thomas and Maurice Roberts (whose book “The Thought of God” was perhaps one of the best books I’ve read devotionally). The topic is preparatory grace. While we believe that salvation happens in an instant, we also know that God usually is slow to draw sinners to himself. Sometimes the process is so slow that the convert can’t really point to a moment of conversion. I, for one, can’t remember when I was saved. It could have been as early as five, and as late as twenty. All I know now is that at some point along the line, I got saved. Preparatory grace is exactly what it sounds like: grace that prepares sinners for salvation.

The theology behind preparatory grace attempts to understand how sinners get converted. Delving into the wisdom of the Puritans is helpful for this issue, as it has implications for how we preach the gospel and shepherd the flock. For example, should we always expect God’s work to be dramatic and clear? Sometimes it is, but most of us who labor in the ministry of the Word know that this is usually not the case. Often, it seems like a long, slow, arduous, and painful process. This book aims to understand this theologically.

I like Beeke’s approach because he does something only few are able to do well: wed history and theology. Here you have something biographical and something theological. You learn about great men from the past the great ideas they’ve wrestled with. Nothing is new under the sun, and we’d all do ourselves a favor to read what others have written on pressing topics.

This book fills a void, as Ferguson makes clear in the introduction. There’s not much written on the subject. In fact, I’ve just finished a class on soteriology in seminary, and we only briefly mentioned preparatory grace. A whole book on the subject, analyzed through the lens of the Puritans, is a great tool not only to go deeper with the subject but also to get into the minds of the towering pillars who came before.

Want to get to know the Puritans? First I’d recommend A Quest for Godliness, by Packer. Second I’d give you Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken. Third, I’d introduce you to Joel Beeke, whose life work has been with the Puritans. Anything you read by him will be soaking with Puritan wisdom, and this book is no different.

Stark, staring bonkers

packer“If, ten years ago, you had told me that I would live to see literate evangelicals, some with doctorates and a seminary teaching record, arguing for the reality of an eternal salvation, divinely guaranteed, that may have in it no repentance, no discipleship, no behavioral change, no practical acknowledgment of Christ as Lord of one’s life, and no perseverance in faith, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. Stark, staring bonkers, is the British phrase I would probably have used.”

Read the rest of it here.

J.I. Packer, Understanding the Lordship Controversy. From: Tabletalk, May, 1991, published by Ligonier Ministries.

What kind of “belief” saves you?

theology thursday_edited-1

Great thinkers in the past have divided biblical faith into three categories which are helpful for us to determine what it means to really believe: noticia, assensus, and fiducia. This is helpful– especially in light of James 2, which indicates that there is a kind of faith that cannot save.

Noticia refers to the idea of “knowing”. This is knowledge of the right doctrine. This is understanding the right truths. If an unbeliever visits a church long enough, and begins reading his Bible, he may get the facts right but not believe it.  I’ve known atheists and agnostics who understand Christian doctrine better than some Christians I’ve known. Obviously, this kind of knowledge doesn’t save you.

Assensus refers to the idea of “agreeing”. This is agreeing with the right doctrine. It means assenting to the truth of Scripture. This would be the kind of belief that agrees with the gospel but isn’t actually changed by it. James would call this kind of faith “dead” (James 2:14). A person could have all the right content (noticia) and agree with all the right facts (assensus) and yet still be unsaved– for true faith always results in real life change.

Fidutia refers to personal confidence and trust. This is the idea of “trusting”. This is not only knowing the right doctrine and agreeing that it’s true, but personally responding to the gospel by turning from known sin, taking a posture of surrender and submission to Christ, and believing with confidence that all God’s promises are yours in Christ. This kind of faith results in life-change, where the believer constantly strives to put Christ on the throne of his life.

Where do you stand?

Is your “faith” simply knowing all the right doctrine?

Is your “faith” agreeing to the truths of the gospel?

If your faith is merely knowing and agreeing, it’s time for you to take another step, because only a fidutia kind of faith saves. Personally trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord, surrender to him as your master, turn from your sin, pursue righteousness, and believe that his work on the cross has delivered you from the power and penalty of sin.

The clearest measure of a Christian’s maturity

church

A Christian is someone who has a growing love for the Word of God.

A Christian is someone who is growing in the discipline of prayer.

A Christian is someone who has a growing love for his brothers and sisters in Christ.

A Christian is someone with a growing concern for personal holiness.

A Christian is someone who desires to see the lost converted and discipled.

Where is the Word of God most clearly taught, most rigorously obeyed, most highly valued? Which place, of all the places a Christian could be, is meant to be a “house of prayer”? Which gathering can the believer most readily show his love for the brethren? Where else can a believer be exhorted to holiness and be held accountable? Which institution makes the Great Commission its purpose and goal?

The church. The church is the crossroads where all the Christian’s highest affections meet. And that’s why I think the clearest measure of a Christian’s maturity is how he feels about the local church.

Tolkien’s fascination with words and language

Tolkien had a fascination with words. He seems to have been obsessed with them. Shippey writes, “On some subjects Tolkien simply knew more, and had thought more deeply, than anyone else in the world.” The following description of Tolkien’s ideas about the intrinsic beauty of languages fascinates me, and it puts to words something I’ve known to be true for a long time but have never set to expression: tolkien

[Tolkien] thought that people, and perhaps as a result of their confused linguistic history especially English people, could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. They knew that names like Ugthorpe and Stainby were Northern without knowing they were Norse; they knew Winchcombe and Cumrew must be in the West without recognizing that the word cwm is Welsh. They could feel linguistic style in words. Along with this, Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive, or intrinsically repulsive. The Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs is repulsive. When Gandalf uses it in ‘The Council of Elrond’, ‘All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears’; Elrond rebukes Gandalf for using the language, not for what he says in it. By contrast Tolkein thought that Welsh, and Finnish, were intrinsically beautiful; he modelled his invented Elf-languages on their phonetic and grammatical patterns, Sindarin and Quenya respectively. It is a sign of these convictions that again and again in The Lord of the Rings he has characters speak in these languages without bothering to translate them. The point, or a point, is made by the sound alone–just as allusions to the old legends of previous ages say something without the legends necessarily being told.”

J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey

The best work is always done with a few

disciples

“We should not expect a great number to begin with, nor should we desire it. The best work is always done with a few. Better to give a year or so to one or two people who learn what it means to conquer for Christ than to spend a lifetime with a congregation just keeping the program going.”

Robert Coleman,  The Master Plan of Evangelism

What is our relationship to Adam’s sin?

Romans 5:12 is one of the harder passages of Scripture to understand. It comes in a context where Paul is describing justification by faith and reconciliation to God. Then, drawing parallels between Adam and Christ, he makes this statement:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”

The main question revolves around the final clause of the sentence: “because all sinned.” The question is this: how is Paul describing our relationship with Adam? What does Adam’s first sin have to do with our current sinfulness? Here are a few possible views:

  1. Arminian view. This is the view that we didn’t sin in Adam, but rather simply inherited Adam’s corrupted nature. This view would say that because of Adam’s sin we’re all born with a defect that makes us prone to sin, though we are not actually guilty because of Adam’s sin. In this view, the “because all sinned” in verse 5:12 means that all sinned because we were made corrupt, not because we actually sinned in Adam.
  2. Federal headship view. This is the view that when Adam was the representative head of the human race, and when he sinned, we were all represented in his sin. Like a commander in chief who declares that his country is going to war and the citizens have no choice but to be represented by him, so when Adam chose to go into sin, he made all humanity sinners by representing them.
  3. Augustinian view. This view states that all humanity was actually in Adam when he sinned, and thus sinned with him. In the same way that Levi while in the loins of Abraham was said to have paid tithes to Melchizidek, so we, in the loins of Adam, actually participated in his sin.

From my perspective, the Federal headship view makes the most sense. Adam, the federal head representing humanity, sinned and thus made all humanity guilty. I would also include the aspect of the Arminian view that emphasizes the transference of the corrupt nature. Thus, all sinned in Adam because they were represented by him, and all sinned because Adam passed on the pollution of his sin to his children.

Two books I’m looking forward to

The Pastor’s Justification, by Jared Wilson.

Jared Wilson’s blog is a good source of gospel-saturation, and I’m looking forward to his new stuff directed toward the pastoral ministry. The pastor is tempted to find his “justification” in many things: ministry success, congregation approval, likable-ness, numbers, converts, budgets, church plants– you name it. The obvious but elusive solution to this problem is the gospel, and specifically, the idea that our justification is certain and fixed in the mind of God.

“For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18). In other words, the ultimate aim of every pastor (and every Christian) is the be faithful in the eyes of the Lord, and the rest in the fact that his commendation means everything. I think I will be helped by the book.

It’s going to be released July 31st, but I’ve already pre-ordered it.

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem, by Kevin Deyoung.

Kevin DeYoung is an emerging voice that is worth listening to. Hopefully, he’ll be around for a while serving the church with  his writing gifts. DeYoung seems to recognize problems in the church and write to help. He’s a practioner–laboring to shepherd his local church in the everyday–which means that his writing is forged in the fires of real ministry difficulty. Far from ivory-tower academia DeYoung writes to real people. The Hole in Our Holiness was written in the midst of a big and popular discussion on the nature of sanctification.  Many of his other books are about the nature and purpose of the church (Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission). The “really big problem” DeYoung aims to address here is busy-ness, which, I imagine, everyone struggles with. His clarity of thought will help me think through this important issue and hopefully develop good habits.

This one will be released September 30th, 2013.