Voting Against and Voting For.

If you’ll permit me, some thoughts about the American political process, from down here on the ground:

“Super Tuesday” is next week, in which ten states are holding their presidential primaries. And at this point in the process, we the people still have options, no matter our political party affiliation. You may not be pleased with all your choices, and your preferred candidate may have already gone by the wayside.

Still. You have a choice, and you have a voice. So use it. Vote.

Vote, even if it feels like you’re tilting at windmills. Vote, even if you know that your preferred candidate is perhaps days or weeks away from fading out and dropping out. Vote your conscience. Vote your principles. Vote for the person you think best represents you.

But let’s talk about November, as well. I’ll begin with some personal history.

I’ve had the privilege of voting in four presidential elections. In the first two, I voted for a candidate I actually believed in: George W. Bush. I don’t think he was a perfect president, and I willingly acknowledge that he did some things that still confound me. But I trusted him. He shared a lot of my beliefs. I think, all told, he was and is a sincere and good-intentioned man. And I don’t regret my votes.

[You may disagree. You may think I’m crazy. That’s your prerogative.]

In 2008 and 2012, I voted in the GOP primaries for candidates that I knew wouldn’t become the nominee. Texas’ primary was later in the process in those election years, and the writing seemed to be on the wall. Nevertheless, I decided that I shouldn’t have to vote for either of the eventual nominees more than once, so I threw in my lot with “lost causes.” And each time the general election came around, I held my nose and voted for the “lesser of two evils,” because I believed that, at worst, those candidates would do minimal harm to the country I love.

I’ll admit that those two votes were, in part, votes against President Obama. I disagreed with President Obama on most if not all of his policy positions. I didn’t think his ideas were best for the country. Now, almost 8 years later, I still don’t. I don’t think he’s “the most evil man in America,” as I’ve heard friends and family refer to him. But I think his ideology and policies are wrong and are harmful to the country in the long term. So my votes for the Republican candidates were mainly votes against a candidate and a party platform I just could not support.

So now, 2016. As I said, we’re in the midst of primary season, and there are a few candidates I can feel good about supporting, if they make it to November. But there are also candidates that I just can’t support in any way. Their ideology, policy positions, and personal integrity make them wholly untrustworthy representatives of the good of the American people.

The “lesser of two evils” approach only works, in my mind, when there really is a lesser “evil.” But when two candidates from (seemingly) opposite ends of the spectrum are equally troubling, equally problematic, and equally likely to make destructive and wrong-headed decisions, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to determine which would be worse for the country.

I’m tired of holding my nose and pulling the lever. And I’m tired of voting against candidates.

In my own heart and conscience, I’ve come to this decision: I want my votes to be a vote for a candidate whom I think represents my values and concerns. Representative democracy provides me the privilege and responsibility of choosing a voice to speak for me in the halls of government. I want to choose without shame and resignation.

This doesn’t mean I’m looking for a perfect candidate. No such person exists. And this also doesn’t mean I am looking for a candidate who lines up perfectly with my beliefs. If that were my expectation, I would have to run for president myself. (And it strikes me that I’m now legally old enough to do so, which is chilling.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of coram Deo, living my life “before the face of God.” If my actions, my words, even my thoughts matter to God, then I am no less responsible before God for my vote. After all, my vote is my voice.

So, as for me, when the November election comes around, I will do my best to vote only for candidates that I can support with a clean conscience–not perfect people, but people who I believe best represent my values. And if there is not a presidential candidate who can do that… Well, we’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll be praying that I won’t have to face that decision.

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Your Turn: …I don’t think I really need to invite your comments, because if you think this idea is completely bonkers, I’m sure you’ll let me know! Just remember–be respectful. Inappropriate language or cheap personal attacks will be edited/deleted. [That’s my prerogative.]

 

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The4thDave Reviews: “The Pastor Theologian” by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

When it comes the world of pastoral ministry, I’m a civilian, or at best a reservist. I have experience teaching Bible studies for several years, and very occasionally stepping behind a pulpit during a Lord’s-Day or mid-week service. I am also a very-part-time seminary student who still holds out hope of one day transitioning to some sort of bi-vocational or full-time pastoral ministry. I note all this to say, I am more interested in the pastoral office than the average churchgoer. Books about ministry interest me both practically and aspirationally.  For this reason, I started reading The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson.

In The Pastor Theologian, the authors identify a trend in the church that concerns them: namely, that “pastors aren’t theologians and theologians aren’t pastors.” This unhealthy division of labor, they argue, results in spiritual anemia in both the church and the academy.  After outlining the problem in the first few chapters, the authors then examine the relationship between the pastorate and the role of theologian throughout the history of the Church. They note that until the time of the Enlightenment, the Church was closely involved with education, and there was close cooperation between the university and the church, not only in Europe but in the United States, as the earliest universities and colleges were primarily begun as seminaries. However, with the advance of the Enlightenment, the academy pulled away from the Church and began critiquing and opposing it. In the US, the years after the Second Great Awakening found the same thing happening: academia asserted its independence from the Church. The result of this, the authors suggest, is that “theology” has become “ecclesially anemic, and the church has become theologically  anemic.”

The solution, according to Hiestand and Wilson, is a return of the pastor theologian, and particularly the ecclesial theologian. In Chapter 6 (in my opinion, the most useful of the book), they present a taxonomy of pastor theologians. In this chapter, they address 3 types of pastor theologians:

The local theologian is a pastor who provides theology to the local congregation; the popular theologian offers more widely accessible theological reflection for a broader swath of the church; and the ecclesial theologian gives theological leadership to other theologians and scholars, all the while keeping a close eye on genuine ecclesial (as opposed to academic) concerns.

They suggest that this last type, the ecclesial theologian, is “indispensable to the reshaping of the theological identity of the pastoral vocation.”

These three types are contrasted against the academic theologian, who is thinking and writing within the academy. Academic theologians, the authors suggest, are bound to the expectations and limitations of secular academic publication, and cannot write from a pastoral or church-centric position. Thus, academic theology is largely bound to a level of neutrality and disinterested separation that ecclesial theology is not.

What Worked

First, the authors unambiguously put the responsibility of theological leadership on the shoulders of the local pastor. Throughout the book, there is a call for the local pastor to labor in study and research so that he may preach and teach with a robust theology. This idea cannot be said enough, in my opinion.

Second, this book really helps to clarify the different tracks and approaches one can take in a pastoral setting. While the main thrust of the book is a call for ecclesial theology, they give honor and regard to each type of theologian, and discuss the benefits of both local and popular theology. I found this to be refreshing as well.

Third, the book is clearly intended to be inspiring, rather than merely descriptive. Rather than merely critiquing the intellectual shift in pastoral theology in the past 200 years, the authors are seeking to do something about it. It is clearly an area where they are passionate, and that comes through in several places.

What Didn’t Work (at least for me)

I had a few concerns about the book, as I read it, and some of them grew a bit over time.  First, I’m not as widely read as some. So there were times when the authors would refer to academic theologians in a positive manner, and I wasn’t able to recognize most of the names. It would have been more helpful to me personally if I were more familiar with academic theology, so that I can understand better where the authors were coming from, doctrinally and ideologically.

Second (and again, this may just be me), the book struggled to hold my interest in a few sections.  The early chapters that detailed the history of each type of theologian throughout the first 1700 years of church history began to drag on, and I found myself tempted to skim over paragraphs more and more. The latter chapters, in which the authors detailed ways to promote the development of ecclesial theologians, also lost my attention. There were lots of practical suggestions and case studies for church administration approaches in this area, but it started to feel a bit repetitive. This information might have been better saved for an appendix, with fewer case studies or more targeted questions and answers. I am fully willing to admit that I may not be the target audience for this type of material, so others who are more directly involved in these scenarios may benefit more.

Finally, the thing that confused me most was that the goal the authors spent the entire book calling for is already happening. They seem to treat the idea of an ecclesial theologian — a church theologian writing to church theologians — as a kind of unicorn, lost long ago but perhaps one day re-discovered.

Maybe it’s just that my experience is within a particular niche of the Church (conservative, reformed or reformed-ish evangelicalism), but I’m seeing several examples of ecclesial theology happening already. Places like Southern Seminary are producing pastor-theologians who are doing deep theological research. Men like Dr. Jim Hamilton and Kevin DeYoung are producing works of ecclesial theology while still ministering to local congregations. Journals like Themelios feature peer-reviewed articles by pastor-theologians. (Incidentally, Themelios reviewed this book very favorably!) All in all, I think the authors should be more encouraged that the very thing they are calling for is really happening, in many circles.

Final Analysis: The Pastor Theologian is a clarion call for the return of serious theology that is grounded in the realities of church ministry. Their taxonomy of pastor theologians is extremely helpful in understanding the different circles of influence a pastor might have, and I benefited from their considerations of the impact of vocation on thought process as well as their understanding on the differences between ecclesial and academic theological writing.

On the whole, I don’t think The Pastor Theologian is bad in any particular way. (I know, that sounds like “damning with faint praise.”) It just wasn’t for me, I think. However, those theologians that the authors are calling for may well benefit from their work here.

 

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Please Note: I was provided with a free electronic copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.

 

Loving Wounds.

I noticed something interesting when I was reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians recently. As you may recall, Paul seems to skip his typical introductory remarks, in which he usually praises and encourages the believers in that city. Rather, after a brief greeting, he launches into a critique of the Galatians’ recent actions.

The Galatians had allowed teachers to enter their midst who were trying to add the requirements of the Mosaic Law to the teaching of the Gospel, so that one must be Jewish in order to be Christian.  In no uncertain terms, Paul decries this teaching as a damnable heresy. He says he is astonished and perplexed by the actions of the “foolish” Galatian believers. He defends his own ministry against apparent slanders and accusations meant to discredit him. Then, he argues strongly that followers of Christ are justified by the free gift of grace, made available through the shed blood of Jesus, rather than by human efforts and works of the Law. Like righteous Abraham before them, God’s people are justified by their faith in God and His promises.

In chapter 4, Paul says something striking that gave me pause. He recalls his past dealings with the Galatians, how he worked among them lovingly, and even though he suffered from physical setbacks, they cared for him and treated him with love and respect as God’s messenger.

Then, Paul asks a stunning question: “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” He argues that the false teachers were trying to build up the Galatians’ ego but weren’t telling them what they needed desperately to hear.

In the 21st-century American church, where discernment is increasingly considered divisiveness and people are quick to “judge not” but slow (if not totally unwilling) to “judge with right judgment,”  it’s not unthinkable that Paul would be ruled hateful, critical, even judgmental for the words he writes in this epistle.

But notice something important in this scenario. Paul didn’t just call the Galatians foolish and perplexing–he called them his brothers, even his little children whom he loved. 

It’s easy to focus on Paul’s cautions and criticisms, which are vital for the spiritual lives of all believers, including the Galatians. (They’re divinely-inspired words, so OF COURSE they’re vital!) But don’t miss the fact that Paul, the champion of discernment and opponent of all who would corrupt and co-opt and contradict the Gospel, was speaking to these foolish Galatians out of an abundance of love, a depth of compassion, and a history of loving ministry. Paul calls the Galatian believers his “little children,” for whom he felt in the “anguish of childbirth” over concern for their souls.

This doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t call out false teachers and those who opposed his ministry. In like manner, we shouldn’t be afraid to address public false teaching publicly, without soft-selling or pulled punches. But when it came to fellow believers who had fallen victim to false teaching, Paul’s approach was parental and pastoral. He wasn’t a madman with a machete, hacking away at his brothers; he was a surgeon with a scalpel. When he confronted the sin of others, his blows were wounds from a friend.

The very morning that I noticed Paul’s question in Galatians 4, I had a hard conversation with a dear brother who had fallen into sin. When I had heard what was going on, I was shocked and grieved, and before confronting him, I prayed for God to soften both my heart and his. I am happy to tell you that the brother has repented and is walking in obedience, but the conversation wasn’t an easy one.  He could have rebuffed my rebuke and dismissed me. I was no longer in any position of authority or accountability in his life. However, he knew me–he knew how much I have cared for him, and how much I have sought to serve him and build him up in the Lord. Because of this, he listened to what I had to say, and repented of his sin, and I praise the Lord for that.

Here’s my point: Christian, those of you who are mature are responsible before God to recognize and confront the sins of your brothers in a spirit of humility and gentlenessAnd I think you are more likely to be heard if your brothers know how much you care about their souls. When the time comes that you need to deliver loving wounds to your brothers, do so with gentleness, with love, with compassion. If not, your righteous judgment will sound too much like clashing cymbals and clanging gongs.

Second-guessing Spurgeon?!?

Because I’m a thirtysomething neo-Reformedish evangelical, Spurgeon quotes on social media are always an easy thumbs-up for me. If the “prince of preachers” were alive in 2016 and used social media, every tweet and status update would be “liked” and “shared” a billion times by guys just like me. And that’s not just my being a fanboy: Charles Spurgeon was a brilliant writer and passionate preacher of the Gospel. I have always found his work to be rock-solid and worthy of attention.

So when someone second-guesses Spurgeon, I have to admit that my eyebrows go up. 

The other day, Dustin Germain (@paperhymn) tweeted this:

PaperHymn Original Tweet

In normal circumstances, if I had come across the quote by itself, I think I would have just nodded my head and thought something along the lines of, “Absolutely. Preach Jesus!” and then moved on. But when I saw that Dustin had questioned the quote, it forced me to consider it a little more closely.

As Dustin and I tweeted back and forth, he said that the latter part of the quote was the problem–the all-or-nothing, zero-tolerance-policy approach. He argued that even a John MacArthur can preach a sermon without naming the name of Jesus (which I have to admit, I’m skeptical of–so if you can point me to evidence, Dustin, I’d appreciate it). He suggested that pastors should certainly preach Christ from the Old Testament when appropriate, and that an altar-call name-drop of Jesus helps no one. Fair enough.

In the end, we agreed that Christian pastors who make a habit of ignoring Jesus in sermons need to just stop preaching. I think this is true, and I suspect Brother Spurgeon would agree.

Two key questions arose in my mind, as a result of this exchange:

Question One: Do I agree with Spurgeon’s statement, as quoted? The answer is… actually, no. I think the statement is a bit hyperbolic and florid–it’s rhetoric that leaves no room for grace. (Is it possible that Spurgeon was taken out of context? It’s unlikely, but it is possible. That does happen from time to time to Christians on the internet.)

Do I think that a pastor who preaches a sermon without a real Gospel presentation or a mention of Jesus should be immediately disqualified from ministry? No. The blood of Christ covers even botched sermons. If our gracious God can forgive a blown sermon, so can I.

Please do not misunderstand me: That does not give license for “pastors” to proffer worldly, works-based, tips-and-tricks-to-improve-your-life speechifying. And it certainly doesn’t encourage laziness and egocentric posturing and philosophy masquerading as proclamation. I take the preaching office seriously. But we are dust, friends. And even your favorite pastor has feet of clay. It is only by the grace of God that he can open his mouth every week and ANYTHING of value comes out.

So if I were in a church where the pastor just biffed it, and I thought he would listen to me, I would humbly and lovingly remind him that there is nothing in all the world that we need to hear more than an application of the gospel of Jesus Christ to our minds and hearts. We need to be reminded every week that Jesus earned for us a righteousness that we could never earn, that He took away our guilt and shame and condemnation, and that He provides us with power for obedience through the Holy Spirit and hope for resurrection. That, and that alone, will transform us.

Question Two: Should a preacher proclaim the Gospel every time he stands to preach? I would say, yes, absolutely, he should. Every time a minister of the Gospel opens his mouth to preach, it is an opportunity to glorify Jesus and proclaim the Good News–no matter what the Biblical text is. If he fails to do that, he has biffed it. The kick sailed wide-left. No good.

If you preach a sermon that doesn’t clearly hold up Jesus and the Gospel, I just don’t think you’re preaching Christianly. I still believe that. When I used to teach Sunday School every week, I would do my level best to proclaim the Gospel every single time, as clearly as possible, no matter what we were covering. Why? Three reasons:

  • Lost people need it. There were always visitors to the class–friends, family members, co-workers. And many people over the years would only visit once or twice. That hour was often the only time I would ever have a chance to speak into that person’s life. I needed to make sure I used it wisely and told them the most important thing they could ever hear.
  • False converts need it. There were people in my class, week to week, who had grown up in the church and knew all the lingo. Even so, I wasn’t fully convinced that they were believers, because their lives and their words didn’t always match up. So week after week, no matter what we were covering, I would do my best to clearly articulate the Law and the Gospel, our inability to earn righteousness before God, and our utter reliance on Jesus.
  • True converts need it. These Gospel truths are the core of our message, and the foundation of our lives. Even true believers need  to be reminded of their total reliance on God, their need for a Savior, and the redemption they have received in Jesus. Week after week, I would challenge my brothers and sisters to turn from sin and follow Jesus, trusting in His finished work alone for salvation.

If a Christan pastor forgets that, and for whatever reason preaches a Christ-less sermon, he shouldn’t be instantly disqualified. But he may need to take a step back and remember Whom he is serving and what he is called to do.

Just my opinion. But I guess that means I think this Spurgeon quote is wrr…  wrrr…. wrrr… not exactly right.

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Your Turn: Should a pastor proclaim the name of Jesus in every single sermon? Can you preach a Christian sermon without naming the name of Jesus? Do you think the Spurgeon quote is…wrong? Sound off below. 

Work and worldview.

While working my way through the book The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson for review on this site, I read the following quote last night that I thought was worthy of consideration:

To put it bluntly, what you do to earn a paycheck and put food on the table is formative, perhaps in ways you don’t fully appreciate.

The context of this statement was an argument that theologians who move from the church context to the university context experience a shift in focus. The way they approach theological thinking and research is now shaped by the concerns, limitations, and assumptions of the academy rather than those of the church.

This started me thinking about my job. I am a scientific editor in the field of medical research, and the main part of my job is to communicate complex medical ideas in plain language so that they can be understood by patients with limited medical literacy. This requires precision and simplicity in language, as well as an eye to practicality and application.

One of my oft-repeated phrases (one with which my dear wife sometimes teases me) is “Words have meanings.” I apply this guiding principle not only to my daily work but also to my daily interactions and particularly my theological work, whether that is teaching or writing. I am sensitive to the nuances and potential problems raised by language because that “realm” is where I spend the bulk of my time and mental energy.

Without my really being aware of it, my work-life has been shaping my perspective on the world.

If this is true, consider then the fact that God is sovereign over where I live and what I do, including where I work. I think it’s safe to say that in His divine plan, He has guided my education and career path to this point. So if my current job is shifting how I see the world, it is doing so precisely because He permits it.

This shouldn’t surprise me. After all, God ordained for Moses to spend 40 years as a shepherd in Midian before he led God’s people out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Something tells me that experience was helpful to him, years later, when he was caring for another large flock of wayward, stubborn, fearful sheep.

If nothing else, this truth should help to shift our mindsets when we feel “stuck” in a job that we don’t want or enjoy. Perhaps God is using this season of work to shape us in ways we don’t expect and to prepare us for work we have yet to encounter.

Your Turn: Have you ever considered how your current work may be shaping your worldview and perspective? Or do you perhaps think this idea is too much of a stretch? Please feel free to share your ideas below!

Just say no.

I have a tendency toward people-pleasing, which means if I’m not careful, I’ll say “yes” to every opportunity and fill my plate so full that I can’t accomplish half of what I take on–and what I do accomplish, I don’t do well. This leads to guilt over producing sub-par work and a desire to try even harder to make up for it. Wash-rinse-repeat.

I’m slowly learning how to say “no” to good opportunities that are not “best,” or are not “best” right now. Case-in-point: I’ve been interacting with a gentleman who was looking for freelance help with an editing project. When the time came to follow-up with him, I hesitated. A few days, then a week, then a few weeks passed. As time lapsed, I grew more and more embarrassed by my lack of response to his invitation.

My ever-perceptive wife asked, “Why are you beating yourself up over this? If you wanted to do it, you would have done it already, right?”

She was right, of course. I was slow to admit it, but I don’t have the room in my schedule, and I’m not prepared to stop work on any of my current projects in order to start a new one. Adding anything else to my plate would hurt my efforts elsewhere.

Finally, more than a month after I should have responded, I sent him a note, apologizing for the delay, thanking him for considering me, and asking to bow out of the project at this time.

And the craziest thing happened: he was totally fine with that.  My feelings of awkwardness were wasted energy. He had already moved on, with no hard feelings, and graciously left the door open for me to check back later.

Consider how things might have been different if I had plowed ahead, without taking thought of what time commitment was required or how I would need to say “no” to other things in order to accommodate it. My work (and possibly my reputation) might have suffered, resulting in frustration and disappointment on my part and potentially a closed door to future work of this kind.

So, all in all, saying “no thanks” was a good decision (one I should have arrived at sooner, I’ll grant you). I’m glad I chose a difficult “no” in order to say “yes” to the things that are more important to me, right now.

So here’s something for you to consider, dear reader: you have a limited amount of time and energy every day, as much as you’d like to think otherwise. Perhaps a wise and fruitful thing for you to focus on today is to make sure that the things that take up your time and energy are actually helping you pursue what you value most. (I don’t mean to encourage prodigal abandonment of responsibilities, either. If you are a grown adult, one of your goals should be to work your job, pay your bills, and take care of your household. We live in the real world, folks.)

If you feel like you have taken on much more than you can handle, maybe it’s time that you start applying the word “no” to your to-do list and calendar, as I have. It’s amazing the difference that it makes.

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Your Turn: Have you had to say “no” to a good opportunity, because it wasn’t a good fit for your priorities and/or schedule? How did it turn out? Share below in the comments. (And I’ll get out ahead of the jokesters by saying that “No” isn’t a valid comment. I’m looking at you, MC.)

You don’t pay $5 for drizzle.

My wife and I stopped in at a fancy coffee-shop and ordered 2 limited-time-only specialty beverages. The posters advertising the beverages show a delightful mound of chocolate whipped cream, chocolate syrup drizzle, and some sort of sweet sprinkles.

We had to take these drinks to-go, and as the barista handed us the first one, my wife noticed that there was a paltry amount of whipped topping, and no other niceties. She was going to just shrug it off and walk away, but I insisted (much to her embarrassment) that we ask for the advertised toppings. The other barista (the one who wasn’t making our drinks) obliged us with some chocolate syrup. Then, when my drink was proffered with none of the advertised accouterments, I politely asked for them to be added as well (whip and drizzle–sprinkles were nowhere to be seen).

Based on the promise of the advertisement and the inflated purchase price (a splurge on our part), our expectations were high.

As we drove away, we both came to the same disappointing realization: both drinks were dishwater-bland. No amount of chocolate syrup would fix it.

Here’s the takeaway: No amount of syrup, whipped cream, or sprinkles will make dishwater taste like coffee. 

And this truth can be applied to books, blogs, and Sunday morning sermons.

 

Giving up Lent (Reposted)

Today is Ash Wednesday, so the big talk this week around the office involves fasting. It’s always a curious thing to hear avowedly secular people discuss Lenten fasting. It’s become a kind of cultural artifact—it’s something you do because everyone else does, or because your family always did–like secular Jews celebrating the “high holy days.” People I know who deny the God of Scripture or the deity of Jesus are still fasting (though they are very particular about the exact rules—I won’t do this at these certain times in these certain circumstances).  It’s interesting to see that, in doing this, they’re creating another man-made law to follow, and willingly taking on the yokes they shape themselves. It’s like, deep down, there’s still a desire to fashion our own righteousness…

Anyway, I want to talk to Christians for a second here. Specifically, Protestants.

If you are a Protestant Christian and you’re planning to celebrate Lent this year, I have to ask you: Why?

In brief, Lent is the observance of the 40 days leading up to Easter, in which practitioners fast from something (either something positive [a blessing] or something negative [a vice]) in order to share in the…

Okay, here’s where I start to get confused. Why ARE you doing it?

Is it to share in the suffering of Christ? We do that through our daily battle against sin, our Christian witness, the opposition we face from a world system that is set against our message.

Is it to show repentance for sin? If that’s the case, isn’t the sacrifice of Christ enough to pay for your sin? Do you need to demonstrate some outward sign of sorrow to prove to God that you are appreciative enough, or you have changed enough?

Is it to teach yourself discipline or self-control? It seems like that’s something the Holy Spirit does, primarily. Beyond that, why limit yourself to these 40 days? Why not fast during Christmas? Fourth of July? What is it about this season that requires your outward acts of penitence and self-denial more than any other season? (I guess we do it on January 1st as well, but that’s penitence of a different kind.) And then there’s the whole thorny issue of talking about fasting, which really defeats the whole purpose…

Those of us who may be tempted to take part  in Lenten observance need to really step back and ask why. This practice isn’t mandated in Scripture; it wasn’t observed by the New Testament church. As a matter of fact, it seemed like Paul had some harsh words for those who would apply extra rules to control behavior for the sake of spiritual asceticism.

While the practice of Lent became part of church tradition during the first millennium of the Church (some point to Nicea as the earliest discussion), it wasn’t seen in a positive light by several of the key figures in Protestant faith. (Here I must tip my cap to Keith Miller for culling these great examples.)

  • While Martin Luther did preach a Lenten sermon in his church, he also said that “Lent has become mere mockery, because our fasting is a perversion and an institution of man.” He continues by saying that the kind of traditional fasting required by Lenten observance is a perversion of the intent of fasting, and the story of Christ’s fasting, in Scripture.
  • In his Institutes, John Calvin called the Lenten fast a “superstitious observance” and a “gross delusion” that misapplies Scriptural texts and makes men think they are doing a service to God.
  • John Owen decried the practice of Lent in his Mortification of Sin, especially when practitioners give up “sin” temporarily in an attempt to honor God.
  • Johnathan Edwards called the dietary rules of Lent an “anti-Christian superstition” and part of “popish religion.”
  • Finally, Charles Spurgeon calls his listeners/readers to consider that the season of mourning has indeed ended:

Come, then, and for your own good hang up the sackbut and take down the psaltery—put away the ashes! What if men call this season, “Lent”? We will keep no Lent, tonight—this is our Eastertide! Our Lord has risen from the dead and He is among us, and we will rejoice in Him! Come, Beloved, surely it is time that we did, for a while, at least, forget our pain, griefs and all the worries of this weary world and, for one, I must, I will, be glad and rejoice in my Lord—and I hope many of you will join with me in the happy occupation which will be helpful to yourselves.

I have to say, friends, I stand with these faithful brothers on this issue.  The vital spiritual practices of daily repentance and even occasional fasting as a physical act of devotion aren’t bad themselves, certainly not. But the practice of formalized fasting as part of the church calendar rings false with the New Testament teaching. If you are in Christ, you are not bound to a ritualistic practice tied to specific days of the calendar.

So this is my challenge to all my Protestant brothers and sisters: this year, let’s give up Lent for Lent. Rather than putting on the robes of mourning, let’s celebrate that our King has already risen and is alive evermore–every day is Easter Sunday! Our sins have been cleansed by His blood, so our acts of pious penitence are no longer needed. Through His suffering, He has won our joy.

[reposted with minimal changes from last February]

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Your Turn: Okay, Lenten observers, here’s your chance to convince me–from Scripture–that I’ve missed the boat on this. I mean it: Biblical arguments for the practice of Lent are most welcome. I want to be Biblical above all things.

Sticky-note absolution.

My local “safe-for-the-whole-family” Christian radio station recently began a “ministry” campaign in which they printed up and distributed sticky-note pads with the radio station’s information and the name of the campaign. They encouraged their listeners to write messages on the notes and stick them all over town, wherever they go, as a way to encourage, bless, and presumably share the Gospel with their city.

I found one such note at the grocery store, stuck to a cooler shelf containing bags of salad mix.  On the note, three words:

“You are forgiven.”

No context. No explanation. Just free absolution, scrawled in blue ink.

I’m sure the person who left the note had the best intentions. Maybe they are a professing believer in Jesus who struggles with internalizing the truth of Romans 8:1, that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Maybe this person decided to share a truth that has been so meaningful to them.

But despite their good intentions, I took the note, crumpled it up, and threw it away, because I was afraid that the mysterious scribbler was actually putting people’s souls at risk.

How can you say that, Dave? you may ask. Our God is a God who forgives!  Yes, this is true. But words matter, and so does context.

The problem with the message of that sticky-note was that it was woefully incomplete. It offered false absolution, a cleansing from sin and guilt that is bloodless and without repentance. It gave the reader the false hope of a blank slate, without the truth of how our records are actually expunged. If a person reads that sticky-note, and believes they are at peace with God regardless of their guilt before Him, they would be terribly deceived and in mortal spiritual danger.

Are we absolved by mere divine declaration, an easy dismissal of sin-debt that requires no satisfaction for wrongdoing? Does God forgive everyone freely and shrug off the need for punishment for sin? If this is so, then such a god would not be a just judge. He would be a monster who releases the guilty, who turns a blind eye to the wicked, who blithely passes over the unpunished sins of the transgressor.

That is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is not only loving and gracious, but He is also just and holy and righteous. His anger burns against sin, and He punishes the guilt of sinners. He is the Judge of all the earth, and He will be bring all the misdeeds of men to account. But because He is also rich in mercy, He has made a way for sinners to receive grace–not cheap and easy grace, like the dismissive wave of a royal hand, but costly, bloody grace that requires a holy sacrifice for sins.

Jesus the Christ, the eternal second member of the Trinity, entered into our world and lived as a perfect, righteous man before giving himself over to be tortured and killed in our stead. His death was a blood-sacrifice in our place, taking on the full wrath of God against sin, in order to save sinners. Then, 3 days later, Jesus was raised from the dead, as proof that He is Lord of all and had conquered sin and death, and as a guarantee that all who believe on Him have hope of resurrection to everlasting life.

The death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness, transformation, and hope to all who turn from their sins and believe in Him. In salvation, God transforms our hearts, and we turn from our sins and follow Jesus, trusting in the sacrifice of Christ to cleanse us from all sin. For those who repent of sin and believe in Jesus, there is indeed “free” forgiveness–forgiveness that we can never earn but that came at great cost to Him.

A better message for that sticky-note would be something like this“Jesus Christ died to save sinners. If you know that you are a sinner before God, you can be forgiven and made new by Jesus. Turn from your sins and believe in Him.”

It may not be a complete conversation (and how can it be, on a 3-inch-square piece of paper?), but it would be an arrow in the right direction.

Some thoughts for rush-hour consideration.

I’ve got five minutes and wanted to post *something* today, so here are some things kicking around in my head.

  1. Over the last couple of days, I’ve gotten a peek at just how much some atheists actively hate the idea of God. Only a fraction of it has been directed at me, but in a couple of places (online, naturally), I’ve seen the mask of civility slip a bit. When it did, I was taken aback. The problem with this is: I shouldn’t be surprised by it. I think, objectively, I *know* that those who are opposed to God hate the very thought of Him, but I have insulated myself from it so much that it catches me off-guard from time to time. This tells me that I need to get outside of my bubble and interact with more non-believers.
  2. More and more, I’m seeing that what we believe about the Bible (and what we believe we are able to know about the Bible) affects every part of our Christian lives. This only underscores how much theology matters in everyday real life, because the question of truth and authority and worldview touches everything from how we spend money to how we use time to how we interact with others.
  3. There’s also the idea I recently mentioned on Twitter about “proper grammar” as a racist/colonialist construct. I don’t have time to get into it fully right now (and I may not ever), but I want to suggest this idea for your consideration: Language is not only a component of culture and community, but it is also a tool with very practical intentions. This means that when we endeavor to interact with communities and cultures different than ours, language is one means of doing so, however imperfect and laden with subtext as it can often be. So the idea of “proper” or “standardized” grammar isn’t merely a means of enforcing “majority dominance”–it’s an acknowledgement that we live in a multi-cutural/multi-communal society, and a common or standardized language is one tool for ensuring that the members of a minority culture or sub-culture are not ghettoized by ignorance of the lingua franca. (And I write this with the acknowledgement that I can only speak abstractly or from my own experience.)

Please feel free to engage with any of the preceding. Consider them discussion post prompts, if you like. Be kind in the comments. See you on Monday.