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What’s in a Name? (Understanding of Dispensationalism)

August 22, 2013 10 comments

An uproar in the online blog world this week started with David Murray’s post at Ligonier, actually an excerpt from his book, in which he suggested – rather casually, in passing – several reasons why preachers avoid teaching the Old Testament.  Reason #4 was quite out of place amongst the others: Dispensationalism, or rather the author’s mistaken concept of dispensationalism based on lack of familiarity with what dispensationalism actually believes and teaches, plus John MacArthur’s comments in this interview.   Jesse Johnson at the Cripplegate soon responded, and then David Murray at his blog featured a guest post from Dan Phillips, also in response to this erroneous idea that dispensationalism leads to neglect of the Old Testament.  The comments continue at those two posts, but what I want to focus on, here, is an overall look at some of the common doctrines (and some myths) associated with ‘dispensationalism’ by outsiders, and clarify these issues.

Dispensationalism Focuses Too Much On The Dispensations Rather Than the Covenants

This may be true of some seminaries and perhaps Arminian dispensational churches, at least the ones mentioned from people’s past experiences.  But current-day dispensationalism – and by this I mean Calvinist Dispensationalism as represented today at the Masters Seminary and associated teachers – gives the proper emphasis to the biblical covenants and understanding of the unconditional, unilateral covenants, especially the Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants.

Dispensationalism Leads to Neglect of the Old Testament

This issue has been well addressed this week by Jesse Johnson and Dan Phillips.  My own observation here is that actually the dispensationalists have a stronger overall unity of scripture and God’s overall purpose, including the overall biblical theme of the Kingdom of God, which covers everything from Genesis to Revelation (and special emphasis on the reverse-parallels seen in Genesis and Revelation).

Dispensationalism Teaches Two Ways of Salvation

This myth has been responded to many times, yet some non-dispensationalists keep repeating it, seemingly in willful ignorance.  See this article from Tony Garland, also this previous post and its quote from Dr. Richard Mayhue.  Dispensationalism has never taught such; dispensationalism addresses eschatology and ecclesiology but not soteriology.

The Pre-Trib Rapture

Current-day dispensationalism does consider the pre-trib rapture a secondary matter, of lesser importance and not essential to the basics of dispensationalism.  See, for instance, Michael Vlach’s list of six essentials of dispensationalism.  That said, it is true that the vast majority of dispensationalists, and even progressive dispensationalists, believe in the pre-trib rapture, though a few hold to mid-trib or pre-wrath (3/4) rapture.  I’ve found the writings of one person who refers to himself as a Post-Trib Progressive Dispensationalist (but that individual is also evidently a non-Calvinist).  It is also worth noting that, often, those who hold to the essentials of dispensationalism (as defined by Dr. Vlach) yet post-trib rapture, distance themselves from the term “dispensationalism” due to the strong association of that term with the pre-trib rapture.  S. Lewis Johnson in his day certainly viewed dispensationalism as closely associated with the pre-trib rapture, observing in the Divine Purpose series (mid-1980s) that this is one challenge for dispensationalists: to work on the fine points of the hermeneutical claims, the defense of their millennialism against recent challenges to their position on the relation of pre-tribulationism to dispensationalism on their soteriology and on their integration of dispensational truths and to the biblical covenantal unfolding of Scripture which they themselves often acknowledge.  Barry Horner (author of Future Israel) never calls himself a dispensationalist yet holds to the essentials as defined by Michael Vlach.  Horner further describes several of the 19th century classic premillennialists as “non-dispensational” though they too believed in the future restoration of Israel; among these teachers, notably B. W. Newton, S.P. Tregelles, and Nathaniel West, believed basically the same as the early dispensationalists (and current day dispensationalists as described here) but with post-trib rapture.

Premillennialism With Future Restoration of Israel to Their Land

This is one of the defining essentials of dispensationalism.  Here, too, is some irony.  As noted concerning the pre-trib or post-trib rapture, here is where some believers, who hold the essentials of dispensationalism (including Future Israel) yet are post-trib, distance themselves from the label of “dispensationalist.”  Yet it is on this very point, premillennialism with future restoration of Israel, that non-premillennialists over-generalize, unaware of the different variations in various individuals’ overall Christian beliefs: anyone who believes this “must be dispensational,” which of course includes the whole package of other ideas of that label (pre-trib rapture, antinomianism, two ways of salvation, neglecting the Old Testament).  Especially appropriate here, and to conclude, Barry Horner observes:

This writer’s frequent experience has been, especially within a Reformed environment, that upon his expression of a future premillennial hope, he is then subjected to careful scrutiny. Qualification is sought as to whether one is an historic premillennialist, after the manner of George Eldon Ladd, or a dispensationalist after the lineage of Darby, Schofield, Chafer, Walvoord, etc. The tone of the enquiry suggests that the former is acceptable while the latter is unacceptable. So explanation is made that one believes in a glorious future time when the redeemed people of God, distinctively comprising national Israel and the Gentile nations, will enjoy the consummation of their salvation on an earth of renovated spiritual materiality where the glorious, spiritually tangible and substantial Jesus Christ will reign from Jerusalem in the midst of Israel. At this juncture, the common response is that such a belief identifies one as a dispensationalist, especially since Ladd is said to have not incorporated such particularity concerning Israel within his premillennialism. In other words, if a person was an historic premillennialist, he would not retain any clear-cut distinction between Israel and the church, but especially within the one redeemed people of God in their future manifestation. When one then points out and specifically names a number of notable Christians who were not dispensationalists, such as Horatius Bonar, J. C. Ryle, and C. H. Spurgeon, even postmillennialist Jonathan Edwards, who nevertheless believed in the aforementioned scenario, that is Israel and the Gentile nations retaining their distinctive identity under the earthly reign of Christ, the frequent response is that of a blank stare.

Spurgeon (and Other Classic Preachers) As Guest Preachers

June 11, 2013 5 comments

Last week at the Pyromaniacs blog, Dan Phillips described his recent “guest preaching” in which he delivered a Spurgeon sermon (Dan’s sermon here).

Dan’s “guest preaching” included an introduction to Spurgeon: a brief bio as well as explanation of some of Spurgeon’s word phrases.  For instance, Spurgeon’s expression “hearing the voice of Christ” came before the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movement.  Spurgeon understood that as hearing Christ in scripture.  Interestingly, Dan learned the idea from a book he read in Seminary: as a pastor’s break from other series, a great way to introduce the congregation to the great sermons and great preachers from Church History.

Lest anyone should be confused, this is not the equivalent of (unfortunate incidents) modern day preachers plagiarizing another preacher’s sermons as their own. The sermons from the 19th century and earlier are in the public domain, freely distributed; and full recognition is given along with introduction to the “guest preacher.”  Mark Dever has also featured “guest preacher” Jonathan Edwards, on one occasion when he preached Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.”

I have enjoyed reading Spurgeon sermons, sequentially through the volumes (nearing the end of volume VII now), and, like Dan Phillips, have come to appreciate Spurgeon, and for similar reasons.  Guest preaching of Spurgeon is a real treat, suitable and edifying to modern day listeners.

Beyond this one sermon from Dan Phillips, though, many Spurgeon sermons have been recorded in audio format and freely available, as here (Sermon Audio), also another collection at Spurgeon Gems.  Googling reveals a few other audio selections online, even a handful available on Youtube.

CCEL also has text and audio recordings from other classic preachers, such as this audio collection of Jonathan Edwards sermons.

Hermeneutics: On Being “More Spiritual Than God”

January 21, 2013 9 comments

Recently in the comments at Fred Butler’s blog, an amillennialist expressed many thoughts including this one:

if the passages that speak of Israel in a kingdom in which they dwell in a land in which everyone “sits under a fig tree” for example is the real meaning of the Bible then I see that as a problem. If bearing fruit that glorifies Christ is reduced to having a fruit garden then I have missed the gist of the Bible. Far better for such passages to be illustrating the fruitful spiritual kingdom of the Spirit filled age in which through Christ we have been enabled to bear real fruit then to see the culmination of the ages as living over in Palestine.

The phrase referenced here is found in Micah 4:4, with a similar thought in Zechariah 3:10.  The first thing to note here, of course, is that we already have many scriptures that talk about our bearing spiritual fruit for God, as for instance Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 5, Colossians 1, and Philippians 1:10-11.

The Old Testament as well addresses this subject, especially in the book of Proverbs (in numerous places in that book alone), but even in places such as 2 Kings 19:30.  So the suggestion that a literal interpretation of Micah 4:4 and related Old Testament passages requires that “bearing fruit that glorifies Christ is reduced to having a fruit garden” is foolish.  Of course we recognize the truth revealed in the scripture, all of the scriptures including the importance and greatness of bearing spiritual fruit that glorifies Christ. A literal interpretation of “sits under a fig tree” in NO WAY takes away from that truth, but gives us additional revelation about another topic (since spiritual fruit-bearing has already been addressed in numerous other scriptures).  Our hermeneutics are not driven by an either/or but a Both/And — both the bearing fruit that glorifies Christ, and Israel having their kingdom and literal peace.  A further question to ask would be: what is the purpose of even having those Old Testament prophecies with descriptions about a wonderful time of peace, if all they have to tell us is the same thing we’ve already been told, in unmistakably clear language in many texts elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments?

Such a comment reminds me of Dan Phillips’ classic post (25 Stupid Reasons for Dissing Dispensationalism), reason #9: “It isn’t a spiritual hermeneutic.”  When God said Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), He knew it meant “house of bread” — but He meant the city anyway.  

Dan gives an example of what a spiritualizing hermeneutic would have done to the prophecies regarding Christ’s First Coming – and indeed we have the advantage of looking back, that we realize that all of the prophecies concerning Christ’s First Coming were fulfilled literally. (So why should anyone think that the prophecies of the Second Coming will NOT be fulfilled literally?) Christ really was born in Bethlehem, and He really did ride on a donkey, etc.  But to take the same symbolic hermeneutic applied to the Second Coming prophecies, to the First Coming prophecies, would come up with something like Dan well described: “What God is really saying would have been perfectly clear to the Jews. It was symbolic. Messiah would come from ‘the house for bread,’ from the storehouse of God’s spiritual nourishment, and He would give life, as bread does. Those wooden literalists who look for fulfillment in an actual city are perverting the Word to their carnal imaginations.’”

Why does God’s word include so many passages that seem to us very “unspiritual” (and even boring), such as the many sections in the Old Testament (and a few in the gospels) with nothing but genealogies and lists of names?  Could it be that God is actually interested in us human beings, even in our “carnal” lives, and He thinks these things are important and part of His revealed word to us?  Of course the Bible does not include only that which is strictly “spiritual” and non-physical, and we are not to twist the literal meaning of God’s word simply because we think a certain passage is too “carnal” and ordinary, insisting that that passage must have some greater, deeper, “spiritual” meaning instead.  Trying to be more spiritual than God is indeed a foolish thing to do.

Proverbs 22:6: A Positive Promise, Or A Threat?

June 29, 2012 3 comments

After getting sidetracked for a while with another book, I’ve returned to finish the last part of Dan Phillips’ God’s Wisdom in Proverbs book (reviewed previously here), including the lengthy section of appendices.  Appendix 3 discusses a rather interesting textual issue, from which I’ve learned that sometimes even when we study a verse in several good English translations, we don’t always have the correct meaning of the original Bible verse.

Proverbs 22:6 in all English translations (at least all the major and not so major ones I’ve checked), conveys a different meaning from the original Hebrew.  Here it is in the ESV:

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.

As Phillips points out, that verse has come to be seen as a promise for Christian parents, a verse cherished by many believers.  If the parents bring up the child in the right way, in a good Christian home, the child will grow up in that good way and become a believer.  Some parents even take this as a promise and thus a guarantee; others at least recognize that the Proverbs, including this one, are general principles and not guarantees, but they still interpret the verse in a positive way as expressed in English Bibles.  I have come across a few homeschool Christian parents (with children still fairly young) that indeed have expressed the first view (promise, guarantee) regarding God and their family; when questioned, they have reasoned that if the child turns out bad, the parent must have failed that child in some way.  Elsewhere in God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, Phillips also addresses that error, showing that Proverbs as well as the overall Bible sets blame sometimes on the parents, but sometimes on the wayward child.  After all, if the parents are 100% to blame for the child’s actions, then how could the law of Moses command that a rebellious adult child be stoned?  If parents were always at fault, surely the law would also stipulate that the parents be stoned.

The full chapter of material describes in more detail the actual Hebrew and a DJV-translation (Dan Phillips’ literal translation). In summary, the Hebrew text does not include the modifier of “should go,” and the referent for “way” is not stated but very likely is not “God’s way” but “his,” the child’s, way.  A very literal translation of the Hebrew is: Initiate for (with respect to) the child on the mouth of (according to) his way; even when he is old he will not turn from it. Understood this way, Proverbs 22:6 is really more of a threat of the bad way; a child brought up in his own way (of folly), will never depart from that way.

As I consider from overall principles of interpretation, we should not depend on any single verse for a particular doctrine.  As Spurgeon said so well, the ideas expressed in one place are found elsewhere in the Bible, so that our overall understanding does not rise or fall with a particular verse.  So here I note that my Bible software program, TheWord, cross-references Ephesians 6:4 as a similar  idea to the English-version of Proverbs 22:6:   Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  Yet the point made in God’s Wisdom in Proverbs is well taken, that we really cannot use Proverbs 22:6 as either a guarantee or general principle regarding bringing up children in a Christian home.  As to why all the English versions have this incorrect translation, the sad but true reality is tradition, going back to the original KJV translation.  Even modern translators have some reluctance to go against the trend when a particular rendering is well known and popular.

I’ve recently been using Google’s Translate service, which appears fairly accurate for at least the Latin and Greek-based languages (though lacking in its ability to translate from Oriental languages to English), and a useful website which includes online Bible text in numerous languages.  From perusal of the foreign-language versions of Proverbs 22:6, the different renderings perhaps point to the history of translation into those various languages.  Interestingly enough, the Latin vulgate has a more accurate rendering.  Here is a sampling of the Google-translations of several foreign-language Bibles, that agree with the original Hebrew meaning:

  •  Train up a child in the way even when he is old he will not depart from it – Latin Vulgate
  • As you get used to a boy, so he does not like when he grows old. – German (Luther) into English
  • Raises the boy under the rule of his way even when he grows old he will not depart from the point. – French Darby
  • Train up a child in the way of his, he will not depart from it, and when old. – Russian
    Train up a child in the way of his, that he, as he is old, does not depart from it – Afrikaans
    Train up a child in the way he, even when old, they will not depart from it. — Hungarian

On the other hand, a few of the European languages follow the KJV example:  Portugese, Norwegian, Bulgarian and Albanian, for instance.

Dan Phillips Sermon Series: Thinking Biblically

May 8, 2012 2 comments

Pyromaniacs blogger Dan Phillips is now also the pastor at Copperfield Bible Church in Houston, and I’ve had a chance to listen to some of his preaching, including his introductory message to a new series, “Thinking Biblically”: understanding the Bible and systematizing theology.

The audio encryption rate is only 16 bits, thus the voice loses a little quality and sounds a bit metallic, but the words and message are clear enough.  After reading his online material for a few years, and his two recently published books, I agree with a friend who noted that his voice doesn’t quite sound like what I expected, and his preaching lacks the sarcastic humor seen online. (No doubt the sarcasm comes from the context of dealing with sometimes difficult people online, a different setting than a local Sunday morning sermon.)  I have noted some style similarity, though, as in his use of the word “evidently” both in audio and writing.

His speaking style is easy to follow, casual like his writings.  The content is a good example of what all preachers who claim to uphold “sola Scriptura” should preach: actually looking in detail at what the Bible says and what it means.  The first message, an introduction to the series, considers three basic questions, and answers them — with scriptural support, in a message that covered a lot of ground in a survey-style approach.

  1. Is it possible to define the faith?  (reference 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Hebrews 1:1-2)
  2. Is it desirable?  Should we put together what the Bible says? (reference Psalm 19, Psalm 119:1)
  3. Is it Necessary? (Matthew 28:18, John 8:31-32)

On this last point Dan noted the meaning of the word disciple:  a pupil, a student.  The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is not what people often think, that this means to go out and evangelize and save everyone.  The wording instead is “make disciples”: enroll students in the school of Christ. A good analogy here, regarding the error of just preaching the basic salvation message and “get everyone saved,” would be if a church were to decide to promote and focus on marriage, and to do so by having a bunch of wedding ceremonies.  “The wedding is only the beginning.”

Throughout the listening, I could not help but notice the very obvious contrast between Dan Phillips and the poor preaching seen recently at a certain local church:  actually doing what you say you believe, by actually teaching the content of the word of God and explaining why it’s important to study.  It’s all too easy to just skim the surface superficially, and make a whole sermon filled with general statements about how important and how valuable God’s word is, and how we uphold “sola scriptura,” and recount the story of Martin Luther upholding the faith, etc.  Such a message only becomes hypocrisy, though, when the one preaching it rejects the truth of Genesis 1 and errs at numerous other specific points of scripture, with a superficial and loose interpretive approach of “what it really means.”  Unfortunately, it fools a lot of people who only listen to those great words rather than the detail.  Yet how much more satisfying is this positive, Bible teaching message, of actually delving into the word of God and noting what the Bible says about itself and about everything else, and to our biblical worldview.

The Mature Christian Worldview And Its Fruit

March 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve enjoyed reading Dan Phillips’ books (see this post).  From those books and other recent events, the following are just some observations about the Christian life and our worldview.

From The World-Tilting Gospel:  yes, studying God’s word can (and often does) lead to pride and looking down on others who haven’t studied it.  Dan admitted it happened to him; it happened to me as well.  However, NOT studying God’s word will also bring pride.  Pride can feed on anything, and even on absolutely nothing, such as the deliberately-empty “waiting on God” attitude.

From God’s Wisdom in Proverbs: a very good point about how we choose our friends and even (especially) marriage partners: we should choose our friends not only from those who are Christians, but from those who are growing and maturing Christians.  Indeed the difference is so important, and how I wish these books had been available in my early Christian days 20 years ago (and that I had read them then).  It is not enough to be satisfied with friends who are Christian, yet who in their daily lives are focused on this world’s cares instead of growing in their knowledge and understanding.

It really is true, that where our treasure is, there our heart will be as well (Matt. 6:21, Luke 12:34).  I think of specific individuals (preachers) and their attitude toward God’s word – and the fruit of such an attitude.  Take for instance the local preacher who continually shows only a low view of scripture and superficial understanding of God’s word, combined with man’s views of scripture (such as progressive creation, amillennialism, preterism).  Like with so many who refuse to believe, the mind is instead focused on pointing out how the words in the Bible really don’t mean what they say they mean, but instead “it really means this.”  What are the fruits of this type of mindset?  He is also very focused on preserving and hanging on to  this life, with casual comments about how our lives are so uncertain, how short our lives are, we never know when it will end; even remarks about how we all say we want to go to heaven, just not right now.

Certainly such a view has some truth — provided that it is balanced with the Christian worldview.  After making such comments about preserving this life, why not continue the application?  When good preachers who highly treasure God’s word and spend their time studying it rather than “reinterpreting it” point out the uncertainty of life, they don’t stop there —  but direct such comments specifically to the unsaved in the audience, imploring them to come to Christ before it’s too late.

Contrast the above attitude with that of individuals with a high view of scripture, who show great depth of understanding, who believe and love the doctrines in God’s word.  The focus is on God’s word and conforming the mind to what God says, rather than trying to conform scripture to man’s understanding.

Here I observe the following fruit from such preachers:  humor and illustrations that focus on our eternal existence.  S. Lewis Johnson would joke about how he didn’t really understand what a certain person said about the term “heavy” – because he hadn’t received any of George Foreman’s blows, and he didn’t want to do that until he had his resurrection body (when he wouldn’t particularly mind). He often talked about what we’ll do when we get to heaven, about meeting with and having conversations with characters from the Bible.  Then he would relate that to the importance of studying God’s word, and why we should even study the minor characters: so that when you meet up with Obadiah you’ll know who he is and know what to talk about him with.

Instead of speculating and reasoning from man’s view to come up with ideas not in the text (such as a preterist view that the “shaking” mentioned in Hebrews 12:26 actually happened at the cross followed by judgment in 70 A.D.), SLJ would speculate about heavenly things, wondering if the saints in heaven are aware of us and what we’re doing.

Dan Phillips Books: “The World-Tilting Gospel” and “God’s Wisdom in Proverbs”

February 23, 2012 4 comments

I don’t usually read current, recently-published books.  This is partly due to access (the family member says to use the library and doesn’t believe in spending lots of money on books), as well as limited time beyond my work schedule, plus family, blogging and listening to sermons.  Often, too, I read many classical works available online, including J.C. Ryle and Horatius Bonar, plus the free commentaries with my Bible software, The Word, such as John Gill and H.A. Ironside.  Recently, however, I acquired copies of Dan Phillips’ recent books:  The World-Tilting Gospel (Kindle for PC, one of the free Kindle book specials), and God’s Wisdom in Proverbs (hardcover; through sweepstakes winnings of gift certificates good at Barnes & Noble).

Since the books are in different formats, I’m actually still reading through both.  I’m further along in TWTG, but I don’t read it as often due to the PC’s location.  While both books reflect the author’s easy-to-read style and sense of humor, TWTG covers more basic material: an excellent presentation of the gospel, material well-familiar to mature Christians, yet in the way of “I love to tell the story” and “I love to hear the old, old story” that brings great joy and comfort to the heart, the story of totally dead, lost sinners and our mighty God who provided the redemptive work.  The “Doctrines of Grace,” also referred to as Calvinism, are  presented here in the clear easy-to-understand style, though without the familiar labels. The World Tilting Gospel then gives a good overview of justification and sanctification.  Later, two chapters give very good presentations of several common erroneous  views of sanctification:  antinomian Non-Lordship “Gutless Gracers,” second and higher-level “experience” charismatics, and especially the “Muzzy Mystics”: the Keswick “Let Go, Let God” “Deeper Life” passive approach to holiness.

God’s Wisdom in Proverbs is much more in-depth, a book study through Proverbs.  I haven’t read any other such books on Proverbs, but this one is very interesting.  The early chapters consider the author (Solomon), and the portions of scripture that were available to him, which we can turn to for additional insight into the Proverbs (especially Deuteronomy and the Psalms).  Other considerations include definition of what a Proverb is — a general truth statement packed into a few words, that does not always apply (the exceptions to the rule) – and categorizing the ten types of Proverbs with examples.  God’s Wisdom in Proverbs often considers the original Hebrew language and the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, with thought diagrams visually showing the relationships between the parts of a proverb.

From the first five chapters come several good points about the importance of an active approach to studying God’s word, along with common misconceptions about particular Proverbs such as Proverbs 3:5-7.  Clearly the author has in mind the same concern for active study in contrast with the “Deeper Life” approach so well described in TWTG.  We look also at the true biblical views of wisdom as contrasted with  arrogance, including the meaning of the Hebrew words and other references to the terms elsewhere in the Old Testament including Psalm 119, demonstrating methods of proper biblical hermeneutics: letting scripture interpret scripture, not man’s ideas of these things.

I’m now up to chapter five, and have found some great quotes about the true biblical view of arrogance.  This one especially I can relate to, having experienced this very attitude from a close “professing Christian” family member:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word.  To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad.  By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

The Most Controversial Issues For Christians

February 17, 2012 7 comments

What are the most controversial issues for Christians today?  In a recent online discussion, a few individuals took this to mean the social topics of the day, such as homosexuality and abortion.  Their point of reference is what’s talked about in the world – “follow the printed media, social media, pulpits , television, apologetics ministries , discernment ministries” – and thus, they reason, these are the issues that are controversial.  One such individual further argued the point with the dictionary definition of “controversial”: showing his understanding of the effect but not the cause of controversy.

But consider the “root cause” of the matter and the underlying issues.  Are cultural issues in the world really debatable points to Bible-believing Christians?  If we really believe God’s word, do we have a problem with understanding that homosexuality is wrong?  The same goes for abortion, or any other social issue that the world is uncertain about:  God’s word does not change, and the true Church of professing believers does not feel the need to debate these issues.  Yes, the “visible” church, which is becoming ever more apostate, including various liberal, organized denominational groups, may argue about those issues.  But that is the world and what we should expect from it.  Or to put it another way: if the people at your local church are divided in opinion about homosexuality, that is a church to flee.

When we look back through Christian history, even to the First Century, we recognize that they too lived in a pagan society where such evils were rampant.  Yet what did the early church fathers discuss, argue, and debate to extremes among themselves?  The nature of Christ (one nature or two natures, his physical body versus his Spirit) and the understanding of the Trinity.  After great persecution in the early fourth century, in which many Christians recanted their faith in order to avoid death, the controversy was whether or not to accept those people back into the fold: a debate so intense that it caused division, bringing forth the Donatists sect with their conservative line against those who recanted under persecution.

In the 19th century Spurgeon led the fight – the controversy among Christians – in the downgrade movement.  See this article, which provides the history of that: again showing what issues have been historically controversial for Christians.  In more recent centuries the controversial issues have included the sovereignty of God in election, the whole Arminian/Calvinist debate, liberalism and modernism.  These issues continue, and many Christians today have a difficult time understanding and accepting many things in God’s word:  God’s sovereignty in election, the extent of the atonement, or the fact that man is responsible even though he can’t do anything apart from regeneration and rebirth which comes only from God.

Now the church has declined to the point that postmodernism and biblical inerrancy have  become controversial.  As John MacArthur recently observed in an interview, the one thing he did not expect to face, when he began his ministry, was a controversy over biblical inerrancy within the church.  Dan Phillips, too, has observed the postmodern trend, what has become controversial for Christians today:  It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word.  To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad.  (God’s Wisdom in Proverbs, by Dan Phillips, p. 132-133)

Behind all the controversies among Christians, though, lies the fundamental cause:  so many Christians do not know their Bible; they do not study it enough. That in turn comes from the sinful hardness and unbelief even among believers, such that often even when some believers do read God’s word they don’t believe that it means what it says.

How to Properly Benefit From The So-Called “Paper Pastors”

April 11, 2011 2 comments

A recent re-post at Pyromaniacs makes a point about people who idolize a “paper pastor” as someone better than their own pastor, because that “paper pastor” is not real but an abstract idea, someone who doesn’t know you from Adam — as flawless as the picture models that men are often attracted to.  The post is good so far as it goes, given several basic assumptions:

  1. You’re going to a church of your own choosing
  2. Your local pastor is biblically grounded, basically of the same doctrinal persuasion as your paper pastor
  3. Your local pastor is a people-caring person willing and able to spend time with you

But what about cases where the above three premises do not fit:  someone who is compelled by another family member to attend a church not to their own liking; the pastor there is not biblically grounded — and of a very different doctrinal persuasion; and furthermore that pastor is not a “people-person” but sees himself as an ideas person, even as a preacher to other preachers.

Since good local connections are cut-off (at least as far as sermons and Bible instruction are concerned), that person must rely on “paper pastors” for good Bible teaching and overall Christian living.  So this post is my attempt to answer that very different situation:  in what ways can the so-called “paper pastors” be of benefit to believers cut-off from the “good local church” option.  These points can also be applied generally to all believers, in how we should approach Bible study and how we learn from good Bible teachers.

First we must consider some overall principles, as embodied in texts such as 1 Corinthians 11:31 (If we judged ourselves we should not be judged), and 2 Peter 1:5-8see this recent post.  I especially note S. Lewis Johnson’s observation concerning backsliding and non-backsliding Christians  (see the longer quote here):

If people will not study the word of God, they are going to need spiritual medicine.  They are going to need a spiritual physician, and I think that through the years the thing that has impressed me in the church is that those Christians who are the least problem to the elders are the Christians who are growing in the knowledge of the Bible.  If you could just get a group of Christians in a church together in which everyone was daily growing in the knowledge of the word of God, the elders could set it out and twiddle their thumbs because it would be a healthy, happy, growing, fruitful body of Christians.  This is so fundamental because the word is powerful and God sees that it accomplishes His purposes.  It is when we neglect the Bible that we begin to drift, becoming indifferent, lose our love, become overtaken and entangled in sin.

The above considerations answer one criticism in the Pyromaniacs post:  “They never persistently probe an area of sin, in you, in person, eyeball to eyeball… nor will they. Church discipline will not be a threat with them. Ever.” For the real issue is the individual’s close walk with the Lord:  continuing to study, to grow and increase in the knowledge of the Lord.  People who are doing so, as SLJ pointed out, are not the people who give problems to church elders or are in need of “church discipline” in the first place.

With that in mind, here are a few more general guidelines and suggestions:

  1. Read and/or listen to several good preachers — find those who are trustworthy and generally reliable, of basically the same doctrinal persuasion yet with many personal variations.  My “paper pastors” include Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, S. Lewis Johnson, Dan Duncan and others at Believers Chapel, John MacArthur and Phil Johnson.
  2. Don’t just collect “quotes,” read popular Christian books on general topics, or listen to special topic church conference lectures.  DO listen to or read entire sermons — preferably exegetical, verse by verse type through a book of the Bible.  Spurgeon’s topical style also works, since he goes into considerable depth in each sermon, in a similar manner to exegetical preachers.  Read the sermons in sequence rather than skipping around to “shut-out” material you might not want to read as much (this is in answer to another of the Pyromaniac post criticisms of paper pastors, that you don’t have to listen to them and “can instantly shut them up, snap!”) This approach compensates for the lack of sermons in the local church situation and provides the biblical teaching and application that at least average-quality preachers deliver.
  3. Read the Bible daily (and good quantity) — I highly recommend the Horner Bible Reading Plan or variations on it.  Read with a Berean spirit, comparing what each preacher says to the words of the text.  J.C. Ryle’s Practical Religion, chapter 5, also has many great thoughts concerning how to read the Bible.

Through this approach, the believer does not look to any one particular “paper pastor” but gains Bible teaching and godly counsel from several.  I read or listen to several good preachers, yet am well aware of “flaws” in each of them (at various minor points), areas where they “do not measure up” and don’t agree exactly with my understanding of scripture.  Thus they are not “picture perfect” idols of pastors that “aren’t real.”

Practical Sermons, Spurgeon, and Reading Good Sermons

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

In a recent post over at Pyromaniacs, Dan Phillips discussed different types of sermons, and noted a weakness in C.H. Spurgeon, that Spurgeon always preached on the doctrinal portions but never on the practical Christian living texts (such as in Ephesians 5, etc.).  I can certainly see that point:  even when Spurgeon chose such texts he would turn the subject away from the part dealing with, say, a husband’s duty, and focus instead on Christ.  Yet in my own reading through Spurgeon’s sermons, I have found many great treasures of wisdom for practical life:  the exhortations and practical advice included within the context of an overall doctrinal sermon, much as the New Testament epistles often begin with chapters of doctrine, followed by chapters of practical application.

Grace Gems well points out the great benefits from reading good sermons, benefits I have only begun to appreciate in my reading through the early Spurgeon sermon volumes:

The reading of good sermons is the most underrated kind of Christian literature on the market today. In former centuries, the reading of sermons was the bulk of the mature Christian’s reading diet. Most Puritan books, for example, are sermons edited for print. Sermon reading keeps believers in the Word, matures the soul, and whets the appetite for good preaching. It promotes Christ-centered thinking, healthy self-examination, and godly piety in every sphere of life.

Consider the following practical words from Spurgeon:

  • continuous exhortations to study the Bible for oneself
  • advice to pray for those who do not understand some of the Bible’s teachings as we do, instead of trying to win them by mere words

Says one, “How can I do God’s business? I have no talent, I have no money. All I earn in the week I have to spend and I have scarce money enough to pay my rent. I have no talent. I could not teach in a Sunday-School.” Brother, have you a child? Well, there is one door of usefulness for you. Sister, you are very poor. No one knows you. You have a husband and however drunk he may be, there is a door of usefulness for you. Bear up under all his insults, be patient under all his taunts and jeers and you can serve God and do God’s business so.

“But, Sir I am sick, it is only today I am able to get out at all. I am always on my bed.” You can do your Master’s business, by lying on a bed of suffering for Him, if you do it patiently. The soldier who is ordered to lie in the trenches, is just as obedient as the man who is ordered to storm the breach. In everything you do you can serve your God. Oh, when the heart is rightly tuned in this matter we shall never make excuses and say, “I cannot be about my Father’s business.”

“How, then,” says one, “am I to make my calling and election sure?” Why, thus—if you would get out of a doubting state—get out of an idle state. If you would get out of a trembling state, get out of an indifferent lukewarm state. …Wherein shall you be diligent? Note how the Scripture has given us a list. Be diligent in your faith. … And when you have given diligence about that, give diligence next to your courage. Labor to get virtue. Plead with God that He would give you the face of a lion, that you may never be afraid of any enemy—however much he may jeer or threaten you but that you may with a consciousness of right, go on, boldly trusting in God. And having, by the help of the Holy Spirit, obtained that, study well the Scriptures and get knowledge. For a knowledge of doctrine will tend very much to confirm your faith. Try to understand God’s Word. Get a sensible, spiritual idea of it.  Get, if you can, a system of divinity out of God’s Bible. Put the doctrines together. Get real, theological knowledge, founded upon the infallible Word. … And when you have done this, “Add to your knowledge temperance.” Take heed to your body—be temperate there. Take heed to your soul—be temperate there. Be not drunken with pride. Be not lifted up with self-confidence. Be temperate. Be not harsh towards your friends, nor bitter to your enemies. Get temperance of lip, temperance of life, temperance of heart, temperance of thought. … Array yourself with patience, that you may not murmur in your sicknesses.  That you may not curse God in your losses, nor be depressed in your afflictions.