Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why I Will Be On A Two Week Semi-Sabbatical

My fellow elders here at the Minden Evangelical Free Church have graciously allowed me to take a semi-sabbatical for the next two weeks (Dec. 8-22). I know many of you will want to know what that means and why I requested this.

First, as to what this means, I will be working out of my study at home, spending very little time in the office, and trying to keep meetings to a minimum. I will still be preaching and will be available for any emergencies that arise.

Second, as to why I requested the semi-sabbatical, it is so I can get a chunk of work done on a writing project I have been working on the better part of two years. Most of my work has been very early in the morning and when I could fit it in at other times. Currently, I am done with research, I have the rough draft for six of ten chapters, and would love to be able to write the rough draft of the seventh chapter and do some editing in these two weeks. I chose this time of year because typically people in the church are busy with Christmas preparations and family and so it would most likely afford the opportunity to write without taking away from needed pastoral duties.

Finally, you are probably curious what the topic of the book is. So, let me give you a brief overview. I am addressing a view of how God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility fit together known as Molinism. Please don’t worry if you have never come across this label. If you are generally familiar with the history of the debate, Molinism falls into the Arminian family of stances and it has grown in popularity over the past couple decades. My desire is not only to display the deficiencies of Molinism, but also along the way, to help readers understand the topic more clearly. And, by the way, I also will show where Molinism is a good stance and where my stance comes close to it.

That is the very brief overview, now here are the bullet points of what I have discovered and which make up the meat of the book:

(1) The Bible never argues that one of the purposes God had in permitting sin was so he could preserve a view of human freedom that involves humans being the originator of their own choices—a kind of freedom that would make humans' love for God genuine. The Bible does affirm that God allowed sin so that he could put on display his manifold attributes and, at the same time, heighten the glory and radiance of his saving mercy against the darkness of mankind’s sin. The Bible is clear that God has done this in a manner that mankind is responsible for his sin, God is not responsible, and God is responsible for salvation (it redounds to his glory). This understanding allows us to see the remaining points—especially #2.

(2) The Bible teaches that God governs the world in such a way that he is not dependent upon or limited by human choices. Another way to say this is that God is absolutely sovereign and he exercises this sovereignty through his providence that encompasses all things in the world. The result is that God is bringing about all that he has decreed he would either cause or allow in accordance with his eternal purpose.

(3) Though God governs all things as set forth in #2, nevertheless, he does not govern all things in the same manner. Through an immeasurable (from the human perspective) combination of active and passive governance on the part of God, all righteous acts ultimately come about because of God’s gracious work and all unrighteous acts are the moral responsibility of Satan, demons, and/or humans. Related to this, God brings about what he has determined would take place through responsible secondary agents—and not by-passing their own wills.

(4) Scripture teaches that a truly free human choice is one that a person desires to do. Such a free choice is in accordance with the strongest motive at the time and these motives are shaped by previous circumstances, decisions, and a person’s character. This view of human freedom allows God to govern things as described in #’s 2-3 and so God is absolutely sovereign and yet, at the same time, humans make real, responsible, and free choices. This kind of freedom, along with how we have described God’s sovereignty, allows for humans to be able to change their minds, change the directions of their lives, respond to reason, and overcome habits—even though all that a person will do has been decreed by God.

(5) The kind of human freedom described in #4 reflects how God’s will works. God’s will flows from his nature, his character—and this perfectly and with absolute freedom. Though man’s decisions are not always absolutely consistent with his character and though not all his decisions are absolutely free, nevertheless, as created in the image of God, man’s will does reflect how God’s will operates.

(6) The kind of human freedom described in #4 allows for God to have decisive influence upon the will and yet the resulting decisions are truly the free decisions and movements of the person’s will.

(7) One reason #6 is so important is that Scripture is clear that God must initiate the saving process with anyone who trusts Jesus Christ as Savior. In other words, he must change the heart so the person sees their need for Christ, desires him, and can and will trust in him. The fact that Scripture teaches this is also another verification for the view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom we have described.

(8) Another reason #6 is important is because God’s transforming work must precede a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. To word this in another way, the New Testament over and over again tells the Christian that he/she has been transformed into a new person and so they must live out the change that is there. This necessitates that God can and has changed their desires and will so that they want to and can choose to follow him. The fact that Scripture teaches this is also another verification for the view of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom we have described.

(9) Finally, the reality that Scripture teaches that in the new heaven and new earth saints will always and forever choose freely what is right and never choose to sin again is one of the greatest verifications that the view of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom set forth in this study is what the Bible teaches, as opposed to how the Molinist and the majority of Christians set forth the interplay of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

So, there you have it. My desire is to write more of an academic version of this book that makes the case with a great deal of source citation and strong, detailed proof of every point. Then I would like to write a version that would be more similar to how I preach and could benefit all kinds of Christians. I also hope eventually to enter perhaps into some public forums with a friend of mine who is a Molinist—so we can increase people’s understanding in these issues and also display how to disagree in a civil and loving way.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Our God Is An Awesome God

For many years Rich Mullins’ song, “Our God Is An Awesome God,” has not only been a popular selection for corporate worship times, it has also been a reminder of what our God is like. He is awesome and so are his works (e.g. Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 7:21; 10:17; Ps. 66:3, 5). In other words, he is one who causes an emotion variously combining dread, strong respect, and wonder. Put another way, God’s nature and deeds are such that they should move us to see his greatness, to sense how small we are related to him, and to worship him—i.e. to do what the Bible summarily refers to as fearing God.  

Not only is God, by his nature, one who inspires awe (or fear), but we also are created to have awe in him and yet our sin-wrought brokenness moves us to place our awe in anything and everything other than him (cf. Romans 1:19-23; 11:34-36). So, even though finding awe or fear in God is characteristic of one who truly knows and loves God (cf. Ps. 103:11, 13), is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10), brings God’s blessing (Ps. 112:1), and is a chief motivation behind holiness (2 Cor. 7:1), we are in a life-long battle for where we will place our awe—will it be God or someone/thing else?

This is why I highly recommend Paul Tripp’s book, Awe: Why It Matters For Everything We Think, Say, Or Do. To whet your appetite for this helpful work, let me share with you some of the thoughts you will find in it:

(1) In Chapter One he explains that we are made for awe and search to have awe. The question is this, in what do we find awe?  God created an awesome world and intended us to be daily amazed. God created us with an awe capacity. Where you look for awe will shape the direction of your life. Awe stimulates the greatest joys and deepest sorrows in us all. Misplaced awe keeps us perennially dissatisfied. Finally, he argues that every created awe is meant to point you to the Creator.

(2) In Chapter Two he covers the reality we are in a war for awe. Our sin is awe gone wrong.

(3) Chapter Three may be one of the most powerful in the book. Here he uncovers that many in ministry have lost awe in God. He writes: “The problem is that they lack the grand perspective, and because they do, they often lose sight of why they are doing everything they’re doing.”  He adds that each minister must believe the following truths:
(a) “My job is to give them eyes to see the awesome glory of God….” 

(b) “Only a functional, heart-directed, ministry-shaping awe of God has the power to protect me from myself in ministry.”

(c) “Ministry is meant to be something bigger than completing a list of tasks.”

(d) “It is so easy to lose sight of the big picture. It is easier than we think to lose sight of the awesome God we serve in the middle of days, weeks, and months of ministry busyness. It is tempting to reduce ministry to strategic planning, budget initiative, leadership development, property management, and the revolving catalog of essential meetings.”

(e) “Worship, not success or an obsession with growth, must drive all our decisions….”

(f) “A person in ministry who wakes up every morning to the burdens of a job description and not to the joy of God’s awesome glory is a ministry person in trouble.”

(g) “The spiritual warfare of ministry is all about awe.”

(h) “Awe of God is the only lens through which we can see ministry successes and hardships accurately.”

(i) “Your ministry lifestyle always reveals what has captured your awe.” “Here’s the battle, the big bad danger that lurks in the shadows of the life of every ministry person: familiarity.”

(4) In Chapter Four Tripp draws our attention to two main truths:
(a) “At the most foundational of heart levels, we somehow always replace awe of God in our hearts with awe of self.”

(b) “Only grace can give us back our awe of God again.”

(5) In Chapters Twelve and Thirteen Tripp deals with the impact of the awe of God (or its lack) for our parenting and our work. These are two practical and powerful chapters.

Paul Tripp deals with many other topics in the book that make up a central theme in the Bible and one that is at the heart of our walk with God. As someone else has written, “The fear of the Lord is the soul of godliness.” Few studies will have a greater impact on you. Purchase the book, read it with your Bible open, read it prayerfully, and then read it with your family and Iron Man/Woman team!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Theology Of Work And Economics

Several weeks ago I wrote on this topic in my other blog, "Walking Together In The Public Square." Because it is so important and also because tomorrow (October 16) I am changing my sermon last minute from these subjects—work and economics—to that of the importance of moral character in leadership (something we desperately need to grapple with in light of this current presidential election), I wanted to make sure these two areas were not ignored or forgotten, so I am addressing them here.

Why are they so important? Because the current state of our nation (when we remove the spin put on it by the current administration) is on such a downward trajectory. Consider the following statistics that come from Federal Reserve Economic Data:

1. In January ’09 the median household income was $56,957 in Nov. ’15 it was $56,746 (adjusted for inflation). The figures in ’09 were most likely already down because of the previous economic downturn.

2. The Labor Participation rate in Jan. ’09 was 65.7% and in Nov. ’15 was 62.65%--it has been under 63% for 21 consecutive months. This is a 40 year low. (The reason that the current unemployment rate is so low is not because so many more are employed. It is because so many have ceased looking and so are no longer considered in such statistics. The labor participation rate is a better indicator of where things are at.

3. The number of Americans dependent on government help is surging. In Jan. ’09 there were 31.90 million on food stamps. In Nov. ’15 there were 45.36 million—a 42% increase!

4. Regarding poverty, in 2008 39.82 million were in poverty. In 2014 it was 46.65 million—up 17%.

5. Those who own their own homes were at 67.5% in ’08. It was 63.7% in ’15. The year of 2011 was the worst on record for home sales.

6. The national debt in ’09 was 10.62 trillion and it is 18.89 trillion in January of 2016. By the time President Obama leaves office he will accumulate more debt than all previous presidents combined. For the first time ever American credit rating was downgraded in 2011.

7. The % of adult men (20-60’s) not working, incarcerated, or in school, is almost three times (18%) what it was prior to Obama’s presidency (7%).  (This stat comes from Timothy Gogelein, “The Moynihan Report At 50” The City [Winter 2015])

In this post I once again want to examine these two areas of work and economics. Right away, many Christians might conclude, “Tom, these are not biblical matters, topics that we should really try and influence, nor are they really moral issues. People can take whatever approach they desire. We should stick to those things the Scriptures really address.” Let me respond by saying that the Bible has much to say about these subjects and I am so glad the founders of our nation and those who shaped it in its early years were aware of this.

Here are some key truths from the Bible that not only remind us how God has created the world and man best to function, but that make up our theology of work and economics.

1. Because God created humans in his image, part of what this involves is that we are intended to work and be productive (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15; Ps. 8:5-6; John 5:17). This is part of our dignity (from Latin dignitas, honor or glory) with which we are to reflect God’s glory. In fact, part of God’s will that should be carried out by those who truly know him is that they should work to provide for self, family, and others (see Ephesians 4:28).

2. God created us and the world in such a fashion that typically speaking the way he provides for our needs is through our work. We also discover that typically, the harder we work, the more provision we have. See Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 13:4.

3. The way God has created us and the world is that our physical needs (the need for food, shelter, and clothing, for example) should motivate us not merely to work, but to work hard that we can provide for our needs and those under our care. Proverbs 16:26 reads:  “A worker's appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on.” This is an economic principle that not only leads us to work hard, but leads to ingenuity, as well as the motivation among all of us to make sure goods and services are available to others around us. So, the baker is motivated to bake and sell bread that he can be provided for and also his family. He is providing by baking bread because others need and desire bread. The truck driver is motivated to work and deliver the bread to places where it is needed so that he can provide for his family, and so on and so forth.

4. Given the first three truths, a fourth follows: If someone is able to work and is unwilling to work, others are not to provide for his needs (2 Thes. 3:10). To do that not only encourages a person to live in disobedience to God, but it removes part of his human dignity, it discourages him from pursuits that can provide for him and his family in a way that far surpasses handouts, and it also discourages him from playing his part in a thriving economy that benefits others. As such, that kind of charity is not truly helpful or loving.

5. The first four truths also intersect with a person’s responsibility that he has to love and care for family through material provision. If a man “does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). In other words, if a person is able to work and to provide for his family, he has a moral obligation to do that. If a person claims to be a follower of Christ and yet does not provide for his family in this manner, then this is an indication he has no desire to obey God and so is most likely not truly a believer. So, if we encourage a man not to provide for his family, we are actually encouraging him to disobey God and we are hurting the family by encouraging them to live on handouts, rather than to have more stable provision.

6. The Bible is clear that goods and property which belong to us are not to be taken from us without just cause. Exodus 20:15 reads: “You shall not steal.” What is more, a person is not to be cheated by selling him less goods than what he believes he is purchasing or by moving boundary markers and thus diminishing the land he owns (Lev. 19:36; Dt. 19:14). These teachings are not only the basis for property rights (i.e. the right to own goods and property and protection against you taking what is mine and vice versa), but most likely partially stand underneath the warning against monarchs becoming tyrants in their acquisition of the people’s property (Dt. 17:16, 17)—which would include excessive taxation. Taxation should provide for the protection and defense of a country, as well as the nation’s benefit, yet should not be onerous on the citizens (Rom. 13:1-7). 

7. The Bible values business as something that is good—a means of providing for one’s family and serving others (Proverbs 31:10-31, esp. vv. 18-22). When we put together the first six principles, along with this one, it appears that though the Bible calls persons to give from their property to help those in need in ways that truly help them and do not hurt them (Lev. 19:9-10; Mt. 25:35-40; Acts 5:4-5; 20:35), it is not positive toward the forced redistribution of wealth that would be part of socialism or communism, and that would eventually hurt individuals, families, and a nation since it runs counter to how God has created people and the world to function best.

There is much more we could say, but hopefully a picture is emerging in our minds. What we believe about work, economics, and how we go about helping the poor (and even how a nation is taxed) are not biblically or morally neutral issues. They truly matter. I would argue that to the degree we follow these principles in our work and economic philosophies in a nation, we will benefit the society as a whole and individuals in particular. To the degree we leave behind these truths, we will weaken our economy and hurt individuals, as well as families.

No doubt, these are subjects we will return to again and again. But for now, if they are something you desire to look into further, I would encourage two resources:
1. The Poverty Of Nations (By Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus): Jointly written by a theologian and an economist, this book deals with how countries can pursue greater wealth and prosperity for their citizenry—based upon what the Bible teaches and what economic research has uncovered. The desire of the book is help us not merely aid the poor by giving them things once they are poor, but rather to lift them out of poverty so they do not have to live off charity.

2. Business For The Glory Of God (by Wayne Grudem). This book deals with the Bible’s teaching about business.  Contrary to what some might think, the Bible is not negative toward business, even though business owners can go about their business in ways that are immoral and harmful. Business, rightly done, that provides jobs and creates wealth, is very good. It glorifies God!