sexual orientation and gender

The cover story of TIME magazine this week is “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier.” I read it on Saturday—thanks, airplane miles—and two things caught my eye.

1. The article mentions how some opponents of civil rights legislation in Maryland are concerned about what this means for public restrooms. One lady said, “I don’t want men who think they are women in my bathrooms and locker rooms.” State senator Richard Madaleno replied, “We hear this on every gay-rights issue. There’s always this parade of outlandish consequences that are going to occur that never do.”

Really? Is he sure that “outlandish consequences” never occur? He is being quoted in a cover story entitled, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” It seems they do sometimes.

2. The article distinguishes between sexual preferences and gender: “sexual orientation determines who you want to go to bed with and gender identity determines what you want to go to bed as.”

Previous generations thought both categories were fixed, while contemporary culture assumes that both are determined by the individual. Gender and sexual orientation are so malleable that “some trans people reject all labels, seeing gender as a spectrum rather than a two-option multiple-choice question.” I’m not sure how male and female is a sliding scale, but there you go.

The Enlightenment proved it’s impossible to enthrone the autonomous self without falling into contradictions, and I believe I see one here. Our culture often says it’s unrealistic to tell homosexuals to change. They can’t simply “pray the gay away.” Then it turns around and says that people are free to choose their own gender and sexual orientation. Which is it? Are they free to choose or not? I don’t think the LGBT community can have it both ways, though I’m sure they will.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Ethics | 6 Comments

evangelicalism and heresy

I don’t want to do this, but a few friends and pastors I respect have asked me to respond to this popular article which essentially says that because evangelicals like C. S. Lewis they should also accept Rob Bell. The essay is written by a young man who hasn’t yet started seminary, which may account for much of his confusion. Here is a quick response.

The opening sentence is a good question, “What does it mean to be an evangelical?” No one seems to agree on this, which is why Zondervan published Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. I don’t know anyone who is deeply invested in the term “evangelical,” though we need some word to describe those of us who seek to preserve the gospel from the encroachment of theological liberalism.

The Evangelical Theological Society has a minimalist doctrinal statement. Anyone who subscribes to the Trinity and inerrancy may join the ETS. ETS contains many members who give the “wrong” answer to the essay’s first four questions. So yes, obviously you can be an evangelical and believe in annihilationism and inclusivism. I personally know a few. This doesn’t mean these views are without serious problems, and we should discuss them, obviously without attacking the person who holds them.

The author states that evangelical leaders denounce others in order to “protect the name of evangelicalism,” apparently because they suppose that only evangelicals possess the gospel. There may be a few people like this, but I don’t know them. Evangelicals are likely to think they are right, or else they would change to something else, but we gladly realize the gospel is faithfully proclaimed by many who do not subscribe to inerrancy. Unlike the author’s caricature, we thank God that the church is larger than our evangelical wing. We read with profit theologians from outside our tradition, a fact that undercuts the author’s main argument.

Regarding C. S. Lewis, his theological writings are a mixed bag that require discernment. He was an inclusivist, which I argue elsewhere is a serious problem, and his story of Aslan and the White Witch is a good illustration of the Christus Victor view of the atonement. But so what? Every Christian I know believes in Christus Victor. The Bible teaches that Jesus came to defeat sin, death, and Satan. The author asserts that Lewis “rejects the Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement,” but says nothing that supports this. Most Christians I know believe in both penal substitution and Christus Victor. For all I know, Lewis believed in both too. The author has not even attempted to make his case.

The author again shows his need for a logic course in his discussion of Luther. He conflates inerrancy and inspiration and says that because Luther disagrees with some of the numbers in Chronicles that he didn’t believe the Bible was “fully inspired, true, or trustworthy.” This would be news to Luther. All the author has proved is that Luther would not be able to join ETS. This does not mean that he believed the Bible was uninspired and untrustworthy. Good grief!

Regarding Augustine, the author is right that Augustine said Genesis 1 should not be taken literally. But that does not mean Augustine believed in evolution. He hadn’t even heard of the theory and would have likely dismissed it if he had. Augustine said God created the world in an instant. It wouldn’t have taken him an entire week. So while Augustine can’t be cited by Ken Ham, neither does he provide support for the author’s position. Another sloppy sleight of hand.

Regarding Barclay, his universalism is different from Rob Bell’s. Barclay grounds his in God’s sovereignty, while Bell follows Origen and grounds his in human choice. As I demonstrated in my response to Love Wins, Bell’s real problem is not his view on hell but his existentialism. Bell is a contemporary Paul Tillich, who argues that no one actually needs to be saved. We’re fine just the way we are. Bell offers the heresy of Pelagianism, which should offend every Christian, not just evangelicals.

Regarding Stott, he did believe in annihilationism. I am sympathetic to this view, though Revelation 20:10 and 14:11 prevent me from believing it. But I don’t know any evangelical who would say this is a disqualifying view of some sort.

Regarding Graham, this was an embarrassing conversation with Schuller. A member of his family told me that they chalked this up to him getting old. I hope so. This is a blemish on an overwhelmingly faithful life of ministry. Inclusivism is not as bad as pluralism or universalism, but it is a serious problem and it is in our churches. I wouldn’t say it disqualifies someone from being an evangelical, but it inevitably undercuts evangelism and missions. Why risk giving someone more knowledge, which they might reject and be damned, if they are already okay because they responded to the slim light they have?

In his conclusion, the author shows his ignorance of history (everyone in Calvin’s day thought Servetus should die, and it was actually Calvin’s Libertine opponents, not Calvin, who burned him. Calvin argued for a more humane beheading. I’m not saying Calvin was right, but to be fair you must condemn the entire period, not just one man, especially the man who did not do it) and theological confusion. He runs so many issues together, issues that have various levels of importance, that it would take much time to untangle them. Evolution, limited inerrancy, universalism, and homosexuality are all different and require patient discussion of each. It’s far too simplistic to say that if a person accepts one then he must accept all the others.

I trust the author will learn nuance after a year or two in seminary. For now his essay is exhibit A for the warning I often give to students. Don’t be in a hurry to get published. The world can wait for your wisdom. Make sure you get it first.

Posted in book review, Emergent Church, Theology | Tagged , | 18 Comments

home movies

My youngest brother is a bit competitive, in an understated sort of way. You’ll have to look closely or you might miss it.

Posted in miscellaneous | 5 Comments

face the music

Here is my latest for Our Daily Journey. As always, if you see something, say something. Thanks!

Read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

So, my dear brothers and sisters, when you gather for the Lord’s Supper, wait for each other (v. 33).

The wise pastor told his new worship director, “There is one style of music I hope you never play in our church.” She grabbed a pen and asked, “What is it?” He replied, “I will never tell you. If we all insist on getting our own way, we will never sing anything.”

Few issues are more controversial in church than music. Some churches solve the problem by providing two worship options, a traditional service for older folks and a contemporary one for those who enjoy more upbeat music. This often keeps both groups happy, but at some cost.

Marva Dawn warns, “it is utterly dangerous for churches to offer choices of worship styles.” She says it divides the church, treats Christians as consumers whose tastes must be catered to, and robs us of the opportunity to serve our neighbor. We should rejoice when a tune is sung that we don’t like, for that is an opportunity to deny ourselves for the sake of our brother or sister (Matthew 16:24). When veteran saints try to learn a new chorus or young people sing an old hymn both are saying to the other, “This may not be my cup of tea, but I’m willing to make room for you. I will sing along for your sake, and the whole church will benefit.” Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we are unwilling to do this during worship, when do we think we ever would? (Mark 12:29-31).

God expects there will be variety in our worship services. He made us different, and He says that Spirit filled believers will variously sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5:19). Our great God deserves to be praised by the widest variety of worshipers and styles. Keep your preference, and keep it to yourself.

Posted in Ethics, Theology | Tagged | 20 Comments

sin on Sundays

Here is a fascinating discussion among Neal Plantinga, Ross Douthat, and many of America’s top journalists on the topic of sin. There is much to chew on here. Especially note the discussion about the absence of sin and confession in our evangelical churches. Thanks to Matt Westerholm, whose tweet alerted me to this site.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Theology | Tagged | Leave a comment

not ashamed

Last Friday I had the privilege of speaking at our seminary’s commencement. We graduated an exceptional class of pastors and counselors, many of whom are already engaged in significant ministry. They will be missed. In light of recent events, I wanted to encourage them that this is perhaps the best time to embark on vocational ministry.

The title of my speech was “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” One of the grads, Carolyn Quinn-Allen, delivered a powerful song on that theme, which you can access here. Here is the text of my talk.

Honored graduates, I’ve got good news, bad news, and very bad news. Which do you want to hear first? Let’s start in the middle, with the bad news. You may be wondering, “Wait, why is the middle ‘bad news?’” Shouldn’t it be neutral? Not if you’re a Calvinist. This is how we see the world. Our glass isn’t half empty or half full. It’s filled to the brim with fresh, spring water, that’s been poisoned.

Calvinists are not curmudgeons, like Andy Rooney or a young Gary Meadors. We just know, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, “how great our sins and misery are.” I miss Gary Meadors, don’t you? For our guests who don’t know, Dr. Meadors was our irrepressible professor of NT. He put his own spin on John Piper’s credo: “Don’t Waste Your Retirement: Move to Florida!” It would have worked too, except he took along his banjo. So yeah, his retirement is pretty much wasted.

I. Bad News

Here’s the bad news. Remember when you started seminary, some 3, 5, or 8 years ago? We told you then that we would help you become a pastor, educator, or Christian counselor. You anticipated becoming a minister of the gospel, a leader in your church and respected in your community. Well, that ship has sailed. The world has changed since you took your first class, at least one of you in the spring of 2006. I’m not saying you’ve been here a long time, Doug Crawford, but we’ve got a building with your name on it. Right about now chalk is being thrown at Paul Beals, Carl Hoch, and Jim Grier. “Gather around, knotheads, my grandson is graduating tonight!”

I may be showing my age by what I’m about to say next. You may disagree, especially if you’re a young whippersnapper, but wait until after I’m done, and do so in person. Not on Twitter. The world has always been sinful—because we’re here—but doesn’t it seem that lately it’s become a lot darker? For the first time in my lifetime, there are passages in the Bible that you dare not read out loud and in public, or people will say you’re wicked and hateful.

So, my new life verse is Romans 1:16. I’ve had several “life verses,” which of course, means none of them actually were. My life verses have a shelf life. When I was in high school my life verse was Phil. 4:13—“I can do all things” (there was more to the verse but I didn’t care). When I got married I changed to the Song of Solomon. Made it my life book. Then we had children, and I jumped to the end of the Bible, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Not because I didn’t enjoy my kids, but I was afraid that if God gave me too much time I might mess them up.

Now, for my next phase, I’m choosing Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” This is also my prayer for you. You’re going to need extra helpings of wisdom, courage, and kindness, because of the very bad news. Are you ready? The very bad news is that many of your fellow Christians, some of whom may be your colleagues in ministry, will be ashamed of the gospel. And their waffling may make life unusually difficult for you.

II. Very Bad News

Right after Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, he explains why we need it.

Romans 1:18-32: left to ourselves we would rather serve idols than the living God, and this idolatry shows up in sins of the spirit and body, which include sexual immorality and homosexual practice. As you know, many Christians, even pastors in the church, say this passage doesn’t mean what it says. They believe they are being tolerant and open-minded, but Paul would say, “You’re ashamed of the gospel.”

Romans 5: a real Adam and a historical fall brought sin and death into the world. Some pastors are now denying original sin. They say this is a western idea that implies our babies stink (they actually use a different word, but since this speech is rated G, I’ll stick with “stink”). One pastor told me he can’t talk about sin with his church, because if he says they’re sinners they’ll just think they stink.

Good luck talking about salvation then. If there’s no sin, there’s no need for a Savior. It’s like selling sunscreen in Michigan. There’s no market for it. Sin is about rebellion, not self-esteem. But if you want to talk self-esteem, I’ll tell you that telling people they’re sinners is a backhanded compliment. You’ve never lectured a worm for wriggling off your hook. “Bad worm! You deeply disappoint me!” It’s a worm, and you don’t expect much. But God takes our sin so seriously that he was willing to die for it? We must have been very, very bad. We must also matter far more than we know.

Other Christian leaders believe in original sin but they say Paul was wrong about a real Adam and a historical fall. Genetic science proves there never was a first man who sinned and brought human death into the world. If you say otherwise you’re anti-science, anti-progress, a hick from the sticks. But Paul would say, “You know, Romans 5 wasn’t only my idea. I was writing the Word of God, which carries a bit more weight than the latest claims of an ever-changing science. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel.”

Romans 10:13-17: we must believe in Jesus to be saved. Our culture thinks this is dangerously absurd. God, if he does exist, is high above us, how can you possibly think you alone have the direct line to him? Do you know who else thinks this way? The Taliban! Stop being so divisive, stop insulting other religions. Tolerate the views of others and get along.

This pluralism has entered our churches. Some polls say that barely half of evangelical Christians believe Jesus is the only way to God. They assume what the culture tells them, that God will accept anyone as long as they are sincere.

Paul would say this doesn’t pass the Elijah test. You’ll never find anyone more sincere than the prophets of Baal. They cut themselves and shouted for hours to get their god to respond. Elijah didn’t give them credit for their sincerity. He called down fire from heaven and destroyed their idols.

Paul would say this doesn’t pass the Jesus test. You can’t accept the gods of other religions without pushing Jesus out to the margins. As Augustine taught us, if it’s possible to be saved any other way, then Jesus died in vain. Don’t be ashamed of Jesus. Don’t be ashamed of Paul’s gospel.

III. Good News

This all sounds very bad, so let’s cut to the good news. What an auspicious moment to be a minister of the gospel! Would you rather be graduating from seminary now, when the world desperately needs leaders who are not ashamed of the gospel, or back in the day, when President Stowell graduated from seminary? I couldn’t locate the exact day of President Stowell’s graduation. There is some dispute over whether it was a 24 hour period or symbolic of something longer. I gather it’s been awhile. Our culture may be increasingly dark, even dangerous for us Christians, but that presents an unparalleled opportunity.

1. Opportunity

Sin still doesn’t work. People can say what they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that sin destroys lives and families. Sin is foolish, and those who insist on doing life their way will scrape their shins and elbows. They are going to need help, and lots of it. Some will slowly realize their only hope is Jesus, and if you are not ashamed of the gospel, you’ll be ready to lend a hand.

There is no better time to be a pastor, counselor, or Christian leader! You are desperately needed now. You don’t need to be spectacular—normal will do. What previous generations took for granted now stands out. E.g., young couple with wedding bands pushing a baby stroller is a sure sign they are evangelical Christians (double stroller, probably Mormons). Teach the Word, love Jesus and love people, and your light will be very bright in this dark night.

2. Privilege

What a privilege! You are a minister of the Word of God. The Word of God!

1. God’s Word makes things happen. God speaks into the void and a new world springs to life. God speaks into the carnage of depraved hearts and the dead are raised to life. There is no greater power than the Word of God, and he has entrusted it to you.

2. God’s Word brings the meaning. Your church may be a handful of people, but they are the bride of Christ, the people who stole his heart. As their pastor, every time you meet you get to bring the Word and tell God’s people just how special they are.

When you bring the Word, you bring the meaning to weddings, funerals, and every counseling appointment. You tell them what God says about their marriage, their death, and their family crisis. Because you have the Word of God, you will be in the room for people’s most important moments. What a privilege!

But never forget, you are only the messenger. If you faithfully teach and apply the Word of God, you will see lives change under your ministry. You will see marriages heal, addictions end, and forgiven sinners overcome with gratitude for their great salvation. They may come to you in tears, thanking you for your inspiring sermon, wise counsel, or patient instruction. In that moment you will be tempted to take some of the credit. Not to their face, you’re too smart for that, but inside, in your very dark place, you’ll smile and think how lucky God is to have you on his team.

Don’t do it! Never forget that you are nothing more than the messenger of God. You didn’t die for anyone’s sin. You didn’t rescue that family or that sinner from hell, God did. You were just the messenger. So when you receive such heartfelt praise, follow David’s example when his men retrieved the water from the well in Bethlehem. Thank them for their kind words, but don’t drink it in. You turn and pour it out before the Lord.

3. Responsibility

a. This is so important, I want God himself to tell us what our responsibility is (Read 2 Tim. 4:1-5).

b. God has not commanded you to be successful. He does demand that you’re faithful. Karl Barth reminded us that God is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions, but neither is he automatically on the side of the small regiments. Your ministry might be large because God is blessing, but you might also be large because you’ve sold out. You might be small because you’re the holy remnant, the last group that has not bowed to Baal, but you might also be small because you bite people.

Numbers tell you nothing. Jesus didn’t leave this earth to public acclaim. Peter and Paul were martyred. But all were faithful. Hebrews 11:32-40—some led armies and stopped the mouths of lions while others were cut in two and lived in holes in the ground. Yet all died as heroes of the faith.

IV. Best News

So that’s the bad news, the very bad news, and the good news. Now for the best news. Which is pretty good, even for a Calvinist. The best news is that you are not on our own, but as you leave here tonight, you go with Christ.

Our present culture may be dangerous, but it is not more dangerous than Jesus. Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow him (Mt. 16:24). We must die with Christ if we ever hope to rise with him. Losing your life is still the only way to find it.

Please, don’t measure your success by the size of your building, the number of blog hits or compliments you receive from grateful church members, or even how many people you’ve led to Christ. Measure your success by whether you are laying down your life for others (1 John 3:16).

When the bubonic plague, or black death, came to Wittenberg in 1527, many pastors wanted to flee the city, but Luther ordered them to stay and mind their posts. In his characteristically blunt manner, Luther said, “This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody…would gladly become a servant or helper….nobody would flee but everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me.’…If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word. If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there. Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person. Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well.”

These are dangerous, uncertain times, but they will never be as dangerous as the gospel already is. These last days cannot frighten the one who has already embraced the death and life promised in the gospel. Rather than shrink from danger, you will recognize there an opening for the gospel. Remember, sin does not work! It never has and it never will. Sinners who realize they are dying may be open to the idea of dying and rising with Christ. But they’ll only listen to someone who has already made the trip.

A dangerous gospel in dangerous times. What an explosive combination. Can there be a more exciting moment to be a minister of the Word of God? Can there be a more auspicious occasion to be a servant in God’s kingdom? Come and die. Die with your Lord for the people he has entrusted into your care, and you’ll see.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Ethics, Theology | Tagged | 14 Comments

grace and truth

Phew! I just turned in my grades for the spring semester, my busiest one yet, and now have almost a week off before my three online classes start up. Last week I had the privilege of sharing with my friends in Traverse City on their National Day of Prayer. TC has a terrific group of godly pastors who cheer for each other and link arms whenever possible. I enjoyed being with them, and soaking in their beautiful city–though there was still ice in the bay and a few patches of snow on the ground, in May!

The theme for this year’s Day of Prayer was unity, so I spoke for twenty minutes on our need for both grace and truth. Here is the substance of my talk, omitting one or two spots of elaboration (if a section goes by too quickly, that’s why).

Our passage for this year’s Day of Prayer calls us to unity in the body of Christ. Romans 15:5-6—“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I need this message more than you do. I’ve been cursed with the spiritual gifts of discernment and exhortation. Discernment enables me to see the flaws in my friends, and the gift of exhortation means I don’t mind telling them. I may soon run out of friends, but, doggone it, at least I know I’m right!

When I was a child my family joined a tiny Baptist church in Northeast Ohio. We were small because the pastor had the spiritual gifts of discernment and exhortation. We became tiny when most everyone else got them too. If you weren’t a tough cuss when you came to our church, you were one or the other by the time you left. My pastor told us we were small because we hadn’t compromised. We were the faithful remnant. The truth is we were small because we bit people.

Our church never would have gathered with other Christians for a National Day of Prayer. We were afraid to pray with Pentecostals, Presbyterians, or the wrong kind of Baptist (which was every other kind). We were wrong. Dead wrong. We were passionate about protecting the right teaching of Scripture, but we didn’t realize that Scripture teaches us to protect the unity of the church. Heresy is a scandal, but so is schism. Schism is a heretical, torn picture of the body of Christ. It’s spiritual graffiti.

The night Jesus died he prayed for us, that we would be one, even as he and the Father are one. Has God answered this prayer? Look at the text. John 17:20—“My prayer is not for them alone.” Who is Jesus referring to? Who is “them”? His Jewish disciples. John 17:20—“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” Who is Jesus referring to now? You and I, but most immediately his disciples’ first converts: their fellow Jews who would be present at Pentecost, and soon the Gentile God fearers like Cornelius. John 17:21—“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

More difficult than getting a Methodist and a Baptist to pray together is to get a Gentile and a Jew to get along. This is the problem behind our text this morning. Paul wrote Romans 14 and 15 to command Jewish Christians not to judge Gentiles for breaking the law and to command Gentile Christians not to look down on Jews for being so sensitive.

Did God answer Jesus’ prayer? He did. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” My tiny church never would have believed it, but we were one with the Lutherans in town. The Spirit has united us in the body of Christ, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can steal sheep from each other, but we’re still one in Christ. We can fight on the softball field–and we will–but we’re still one in Christ. We can take swipes at each other, piously framed as prayer requests—“Dear Lord, we ask that First Church of the Petoskey Stone will present a clear gospel at its Easter Egg Hunt”—but we are still one in Christ. What God has joined together, no man can put asunder.

This is true. Every word of it. But it’s also true, as our verse reminds us, we’ve got a ways to go until our practice catches up with reality. Romans 15:5-6—“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We may never achieve such complete unity in this life, but this annual gathering is a very good start.

1. What Unites Us?

Unity requires both the One and the Many. You can’t have unity with yourself, because you’re just one person. There’s no many, no difference that can be brought together. We can have unity in a room like this, because there are many of us. We’ve got the difference covered, now all we need is the one. Oneness requires two things:

a. Grace: love and goodwill for each other. People of grace are committed to each other, to believing the best about each other. When we sat down for breakfast this morning, we didn’t gossip, “Did you hear what’s happening at Mission Point Presbyterian?” unless it was to share some piece of good news. Wouldn’t it be something if we gossiped so well about each other that each new meeting was preceded by good reviews? Wouldn’t it please Jesus for me to know something good about you, and you me, before we even met?

b. Truth: We need grace, but grace isn’t enough. We also need truth, or our unity is a sham. If I showed you a picture of President Obama and Vladimir Putin warmly shaking hands, and told you the picture was taken yesterday, you wouldn’t believe it. You’d say the picture was photo shopped, or if it really happened, then both men are pretending. They don’t like each other. They’re this close to war. Putin wants Ukraine and Obama doesn’t want him to have it. They have nothing in common. One of them looks good shirtless and the other usually is.

Every true community has something to rally around. It’s easy to tell what it is, because they put it in their name. In Traverse City you’ve got a hiking club, track club, swim club, and paddling club (looking back on my childhood, I believe my father belonged to the Ohio chapter). You’ve got a figure skating club, rock and mineral club, even an optimist club (which may not have survived the winter).

What does the Christian Church rally around? It’s in our name, too. Our rallying point is a person, Jesus Christ, whom John 1:14 says is full of both grace and truth. Jesus draws us together as he draws us to himself.

E.g., Tuning an orchestra. The trumpets don’t tune with the violins who tune with the French horns who tune with the trombones in some continuous string. Instead, each instrument listens for the oboe. As each adjusts its pitch to this focal point, it automatically tunes with every other instrument. Just so, as we tune our hearts to Jesus, we join hearts with each other.

As we tune our hearts to Jesus, we begin to exude both grace and truth. Francis Schaeffer said that grace and truth are like two wings on an airplane. Which one would you like to do without? Would you prefer to corkscrew to the left or plummet to the right? Wouldn’t it be best to keep both wings and fly?

I like the plane analogy, because it illustrates that grace and truth are not opposite poles that cancel each other out. Like the two natures of Christ, they are two sides of the same coin. Some Christians are high on grace and low on truth. But grace without truth isn’t even grace, but sappy platitudes slobbered by an indulgent deity. Other Christians are high on truth but low on grace. But truth without grace isn’t even truth. Jesus is the truth, and he is full of grace. We can hold all the right doctrines, but if we hold them without love, we lie.

2. What Divides Us?

If unity requires grace and truth, we must be honest about what still divides us. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we no longer fight much over denominations. We realize that our different views on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and eschatology need not divide us. It wasn’t always this way. Earlier in the twentieth century, one seminary president wrote to an alum who had changed his view on the rapture: “You will find yourself very shortly being avoided by all your classmates, by all the faculty and by all the alumni of the institution which has meant so much to you.”

This letter sounds quaint. Can you believe Christians used to separate over the rapture? The bad news is that we are now dividing over much more important issues. Perhaps our grandparents had the luxury of fighting over the rapture because all of the big stuff was settled. That’s not true anymore, as we saw again last month with the World Vision controversy. That dustup is another installment of the liberal/conservative divide, which concerns how Christians should relate to the modern world.

The modern world celebrates human progress through reason and science. We are more advanced now than ever. How should we relate to an ancient book that has miraculous tales that modern people find incredible? As Rudolf Bultmann explained, “It’s impossible to believe in the supernatural in the age of the wireless” (Beware chronological snobbery. Your advanced culture will seem silly in a generation).

The church’s response to modernity divided most every denomination in the 1920’s. There were liberal and conservative splits among the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Catholics. This division skipped right over the CRC and RCA, because in the 1920s they were still speaking Dutch.

The Defining Question: do we stand over or under the Bible? Conservatives stand under and liberals stand over. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism: liberalism is an entirely different religion. Here’s why. Liberal progression: denied hell, then sin, then cross, then the deity of Jesus (no need for Jesus to be God, and impossible anyway, since the supernatural does not act in our world).

One liberal pastor famously asked, “How can they accuse me of denying the deity of Christ? I’ve never denied the deity of any man!” Okay. See, that’s what we’re talking about. Right there. The liberals changed the rallying point of the church. If we don’t worship the same Jesus, it’s impossible to unite together.

The debate over gay marriage is the latest installment of the conservative/liberal divide. Those who say the Bible doesn’t speak to consensual gay relationships are committing the liberal mistake. They are standing over the Bible and grasping for reasons to disagree with its clear teachings on marriage and sexual practice. Their new reading of the Bible must divide the church. How can we unite with someone with such a low view of God’s Word?

Earlier this month I received an email from a former student. Her pastor had written a column in favor of homosexual practice and asked forgiveness for his previous sin of bigotry. She asked what she should do, and I said if the pastor does not recant and the church does not fire him then, as painful as it is to leave the church that raised her, she’ll have to find an assembly that courageously stands under the Word of God.

In the last couple of months, there is a new wrinkle that is fast dividing the church: Should Christian florists, bakers, and photographers participate in a homosexual wedding?

I wouldn’t do it for several reasons, yet I’ve spoken with Christians who say they could offer their services without approving of the sin. I think it will be difficult, if not impossible, to participate in a gay wedding and still think of it as sin—a violation of a creational norm that damages everyone in the family—but I’m willing to grant them this freedom. These Christians must also grant the same freedom to people like me who think they would sin if they took the pictures or festooned the chapel with flowers. It’s a serious thing to ask another person to violate their conscience. If it’s not spelled out in Scripture, we had better not tell them they must do it. It’s a sin to bind the conscience.

Whatever your view on this issue, we must follow Jesus’ example and, as Paul writes in Romans 15:2, seek to “please our neighbor for their good.”

3. How and Why to Pursue Unity?

This is how we can disagree without being disagreeable. The divisions I mentioned this morning are not news. Many of you have had conversations about them, in person and online. I’ve noticed something about these online discussions. Perhaps it’s the medium, but often each side will ignore the other’s questions and pursue its own line of attack. This makes sense if our object is to win, but what if we pursued the higher purpose of pleasing our neighbor for their good? What if we asked before every post, “Will this comment draw this person to Jesus?” If Jesus is the embodiment of grace and truth, we won’t lead people to him with spite and spin. The means is a vital part of the message.

Why is our unity so important? Besides being the right thing to do, what do we get out of it? Our theme verse tells us—“so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There is power in unified praise.

I can illustrate with something we all understand: snow. Consider snowflake #1. He has read piles of motivational books and listened to hours of inspirational podcasts that have convinced him that he, an ordinary snowflake, Can. Change. The. World. He is determined to make his mark, so he pumps himself up by watching Rocky I, II, and III. He skips IV and especially V, for the same reason you do. Now, as he psyches himself up for his big moment, he puts on his headphones and dances to “Eye of the Tiger.” His whole flake shakes with adrenaline. He cries “Geronimo!” and hurls himself from the sky. And splats in the middle of your windshield. He instantly dissolves. You don’t even notice. Seconds later your wipers brush aside his tiny puddle. He didn’t change a thing.

Now consider snowflake #2. He has much less enthusiasm. He grumbles that he has to get out of bed and come for an early breakfast. There are many other things he could be doing, perhaps things he should be doing. But he comes. And he locks arms with a couple of other snowflakes. Jesus said two or three is enough. And each of them is joined to a few more. The rate of compounding accelerates with each snowflake, and soon, there are hundreds, thousands, then millions of snowflakes locking arms and blanketing the earth. When they get their act together, they can shut down a city. Especially Atlanta.

It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ to rise and stand together. For the glory of God, for the love of each other, and for the sake of the world. But our verse tells us there is something we must do first. We will not stand together unless we first kneel together. So today, in an annual celebration of our daily posture, we join hands with our brothers and sisters, lifting our hearts to Jesus, and we ask him to empower his church to be his gracious, truthful Bride in our dark and divisive world.

Romans 15:5-6—“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Posted in Ethics, Theology | Tagged | Leave a comment