Paul

Trinitarian Leadership

“…that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up…” -Apostle Paul

The primary purpose of the Trinity is to use authority over us that edifies and builds, not tears down. In Paul’s pastoral letters he wishes to use his God-given authority to draw people to the Gospel. This is always the first and foremost desire of the leader/authority figure: to bring people to the Gospel by an authority that edifies, not beats you down. Notice how the Father uses his authority over the Son on earth. The Father doesn’t add threats to his desires for the Son, he adds encouragement and affirmation: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
He doesn’t say, “My Son, go to the cross, or I will make you go my way.” There is a tender authority in the persons of the Godhead that is beautifully pictured in the pastoral ministry of the Apostle Paul.

785px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen you read Paul’s letters a you are left with this sense that the Apostle wants to see restoration in the Church not through the means of threats, but through prayer, gentleness, and humility. Do you want to see your son and daughter change a particular attitude? Do you want to see a friend abandon their destructive ways? Build her up. Tell her the gospel. “My dear friend, I come to you as your sister in Christ. I want the best for you. It pains me to watch you self-destruct. How can I serve you during this time? Do you want me to check up on you every three hours?” “My son, dad has not always been here for you. I have sought other hobbies to entertain myself when I should have been spending time with you. Please, forgive me. It hurts me to see you making these decisions. Is there a way I can help you find truth through this confusion?” There is an inherent authority given to the saints when they speak life into the lives of their fellow parishioners. This authority needs to be edifying.

Authority that is admired and loved is an authority that is edifying. The fundamentalist exercises authority through threats—“do this or else.” The pietist exercises authority through perfection –“If you fail me you are ruining our family’s reputation and there is no way back!” The Biblical Christian exercises authority by serving and edifying before demanding and expecting. Oh, yes, there are ways of getting what you want, but you may get what you want while losing the heart of the one you love. And that, beloved, is not biblical Christianity.

Paul summarizes Jesus’ life:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God
something to be possessed by force.
On the contrary, he emptied himself,
in that he took the form of a servant
by becoming like human beings are.

The most authoritative man in history became a servant while being an authority. The God, who is Three and One, and One and Three, is first and foremost a God who expresses his authority to build, not tear down. Our God, our Trinity is a Trinity that exercises gracious, loving, and life-giving authority.

  1. see particularly II Corinthians 13  (back)
Heaven is not a perfect place

Heaven is not a perfect place

Note: It’s not very common to post writings from others on my own blog, but I have done it a few times in the past as a way of revealing my joy in exposing the profound observations of others. Tom is a dear friend, parishioner, and a capable student of the Bible. He took a single thought from a sermon of mine and developed it to something much better than I could have written.

Guest post by Tom Robertson

“…as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” –The Apostle Paul

“Heaven is the blueprint; earth the raw material.” Uri Brito

Uri Brito is the pastor (my pastor) at Providence Church in Pensacola. The quotation above comes from a sermon he preached a few Sundays ago. The Apostle Paul is familiar to you all. His words were written nearly 2000 years ago from an Ephesian prison. I believe Uri’s illustration may be a little unsettling to the average Christian, especially when compared with Paul’s description of Heaven as “gain” and “far better.” Now, no one believes Pastor Brito is talking about mere drawings and measurements. However, he is at a minimum suggesting that Heaven is a kind of starting point and not the finished product. After all, a blueprint is the plan, not the dwelling place. If this is true, then it follows that Heaven is imperfect. And this sounds a bit alarming.

A Place Where No Storm Clouds Rise?

Most of us – at least most of us in “the South” – grew up singing songs that promised we’d leave this world and fly to a place of eternal and undiminished joy. Our understanding was that Earth is toilsome, a place where we must spend “just a few more weary days.” We all thought Heaven to be a place where “no storm clouds rise”, where “joy shall never end”, “no tears ever come again.” Heaven was not a mere temporary lodging. Yet, scripture teaches that Christians will live in a new heavens and a new earth forever and ever. In fact, all things will be made new (Rev 21:5). We ourselves will be made new; our resurrected and glorified bodies will be fit to enjoy a renewed cosmos (Phil 3:21).

So, we will not live forever in Heaven. In fact, Heaven and Earth were never intended to exist forever as separate places. The plan was always for a unity (See Gen 1 and 2, Acts 4:21, Phil 3:20-21, Col 1:20, Rev 21 and 22). At the moment, however, we are in the midst of a cosmos which has undergone what C.S. Lewis described as The Great Divorce. When Adam sinned creation “fell”; Heaven and earth were “torn asunder” with all the resulting pain and consequences of a divorce.

The Coming Unity

It was Ephesians 1:9-10 – “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” – which occasioned Pastor Brito’s comment “Heaven is the blueprint; earth is the raw materials.” God’s plan, said my Pastor – said the Apostle Paul, no less – is to unite all things in Christ, both in heaven and on earth. It has always been the plan, which is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Neither Heaven nor Earth is meant to be alone.

Heaven is Imperfect

Does this mean that heaven is not a pleasant place? Certainly not! Paul’s confession, that to “die is” not only “gain”, but “far better” (Phil 1:21-23), settles that. To be sure, the comfortable accommodations of heaven are preferable to a sin-ravaged world. Yet, Heaven separated from Earth is imperfect – imperfect, but not defective. Neither was Adam defective. Yet, He was not perfect until joined to Eve. Just as it was not good for Adam to be alone, it is not good for Heaven or Earth to be alone. The ink pen resting on the desk is not defective, but when taken in hand, put to paper and employed by a master poet it becomes perfect. Similarly, Heaven will become perfect when it is intertwined with a gloriously liberated Earth.

So, until then, we are to do what we can to “heavenify” earth, so says my Pastor – “Heaven is the blueprint; earth the raw materials.” And if we happen to leave this Earth before Christ speaks into existence a new cosmos, we’ve been told by a reliable source that our temporary accommodations will be quite comfortable. For to depart and be with Christ is “far better” says Paul – far better, but not perfect.

Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently

Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:9 ESV)

The peace of God does not come to those who do not practice Christian manners. I love the way Leo Tolstoy put it in one of his novels, “If you love me as you say you do… make it so that I am at peace.” Love needs to be communicated so that the other human being is at peace. The purpose of love is to establish your fellow brother or sister in peace.

Have you ever left a conversation feeling utterly drained and discouraged as a human being? Love ought to lead to peace and fullness, not emptiness. Love confronts at times and leads us to peace because now we know where our sins are. Love encourages and leaves us at peace because now we know that we are not alone.  This is the lesson for the Church. For Paul, peace was not so much a feeling, but the tangible manifestation of the grace of God toward us or of a human being towards one another.

Love shows concern for one another. Love, as David Powlison once put it, “Speaks many languages fluently.”

In life, a man or a woman will have at best two or three friends. He may have many acquaintances, but two or three friends (at most) that stick closer than a brother. There is a distinction between vulnerability and openness. You can be vulnerable with few people, but you can be open with many. Few are friends with whom secrets can be shared and deep confession can be made.

As we seek to build our community, we need to understand that some will gladly express inquire about your well-being, but others will go a step further and stay on the phone with you day after day; be with you day after day in time of need. Church community is not a community where everyone acts the same way in every circumstance. It is complex and multi-layered. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, but some brothers are closer than a brother to you than others.

So, since not everyone will know everyone in precisely the same way and be a friend in every way, what is there to be expected of every Christian in general? As we become aware of new births, the death of loved ones, physical and spiritual trials that emerge in our lives and the lives of the saints, and many other circumstances, these are important applications to keep in mind:

First, we must all have a mutual desire to practice what we have learned together. You may listen to what your minister says week after week, you may discuss, even disagree, but in the end you must desire to practice the Christian faith together.

Second, you must show concern for one another. In your community, you ought to ask at least one person each week, honestly and directly, if they have any specific needs. Seek to know them and let them know that their needs are heard.

Finally, and much more could be said, know one another as much as it is possible. How do you know someone? You can know someone generally, or you can desire to know them more intentionally and intimately. Ask questions. Ask good questions. Learn to pay attention to experience and emotions. Learn to be a good detective of human beings. Be able to detect sadness, confusion, frustration, and anger. We do a fairly good job with our children. At some level, this should be translated to those with whom we engage and commune. Know just enough to be able to see such a person and inquire of such a person concerning their well-being if you notice something is not well.

Paul says that he celebrated when he found out about his congregation’s status. It made him rejoice in Christ that he know their needs and they know his.

This is common Christian courtesy that we so often forget to exercise. The reason we should act this way is because our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, acts this way toward us. He cares and is deeply concerned about our needs, passions, and what makes us who we are. Practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. “I and many others find Wright’s overall project to be fruitful, despite having disagreements with him at points.” I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some questionable theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), his theological vision will be narrow, and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe (to borrow from Lewis). Those of us who appreciate Wright prefer to open the wardrobe and see Narnia in all its beauty.”

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

I Give Thanks

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with thanksgiving. Calvin writes that when Paul refers to things that are joyful he breaks forth in thanksgiving, which, Calvin observes, “is a practice we ought also to be familiar.”

Thanksgiving is the antidote to bitterness and gossip. How often do we falsely accuse others only to boost our own selfish interests? Thanksgiving is the reaction of someone overwhelmed by the goodness of God. It is the by-product of a life-story that echoes praise. Be certain that when bitterness and selfishness arise it is out of an ungrateful heart.

This is another reason worship is so central to the life of the church. Worship is a thanksgiving gathering. The very word we use for the Lord’s Supper, namely Eucharist, means thanksgiving. Worship is practice in giving thanks.

Authorship Thoughts

Over the years both in undergraduate and graduate studies I have been exposed to a host of New Testament authorship issues. I have been bombarded with alternative authorship theories on every New Testament book. From Mark to Paul, everything has been questioned. Yet the more I ponder this issue the more confidence I have in the historical designation of these books. It may perhaps be my naive trust in the labors of our forefathers, but when I consider the 18th and 19th century motives of scholars on books like Philippians, it seems clear that their motives are not shaped by divine authorship as much as the latest critical consensus.

My thoughts on Hebrews are pretty clear, and I am willing to concede some healthy debate on the matter, but to begin to deny the authorship of Paul on what has long been considered Pauline authorship books is rather futile.

Beyond that, we believe that the Spirit of God inspired these men to write. Though their humanity is not absent in their writings, though their personalities show forth, yet they are being led by the Third Person of the Trinity. The Spirit of God can re-direct certain authors to alter their style of writing to fit particular circumstances and to minister to particular groups of people.

It also appears that in order to maintain so called objectivity and scholarship, some thinkers direct their attention away from the obvious author in order to scrutinize the book through the lens of critical scholarship. This tactic seems unhelpful and only adds confusion to the authorship question. Questions like: “Would Paul really write like this,” only accentuate the problem. The real question should be: “Our forefathers have largely accepted Pauline authorship, and if this is the case, though this language may not appear to be as consistent with other Pauline writings, could the Spirit direct this genius named Paul to write in such a way?” When such questions are asked, I believe the answer will be clearer. I am not asserting that there has always consensus in the past (Hebrews as an example), but that the majority position was generally clear (with minor exceptions).

The principle seems clear: when in doubt stick with the most obvious answer and that which has been historically prevalent.

Should Reformed People Read N.T. Wright?

It doesn’t happen quite often, but once in a while when I recommend a book or a quote by N.T. Wright on facebook, I will receive a question that goes something like this:

“Do you approve of N.T. Wright? Do you think it’s fruitful to endorse N.T. Wright? Or don’t you know that N.T. denies Justification by faith alone?”

I addressed the first question on facebook and I thought I’d make it available here. My response goes like this:

I think the question ought to be more nuanced. In other words, humans and their ideas, especially new humans recreated by God, ought to be analyzed more carefully and charitably. As a pastor I recommend Wright to my parishioners with the same enthusiasm I would recommend C.S. Lewis, Schmemann, and Martin Luther. I have disagreements with all of them, but charity allows me to communicate with these great thinkers and gain from what they offer, while expressing sometimes strong disagreements on some of their contributions.

Yes, Reformed people, in fact, Christians of all stripes should read Professor Wright. His profound insights, his vision for a renewed humanity in Christ, his invaluable defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his commitment to the historical, Biblical Jesus make him one of the most gifted teachers and scholars of our time and The Jesus Seminar’s worst nightmare.

But what about justification? Shouldn’t we stand for the principal article of the Church? And by standing shouldn’t we reject anyone who denies it?

First, N.T. Wright has written and clarified many of his statements. He stated again and again that he does not deny justification by faith alone. I take him at his word. “But hasn’t he been unclear?” To those who think so, he will always be. To me and many others, I take his project to be fruitful, though not always agreeing. I find Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s humorous, but yet serious points on the Wright vs. Piper debate to be very helpful, and from what I hear from reliable sources, Wright agrees and finds Vanhoozer’s attempt to bridge the two paradigms extremely beneficial.

Secondly, the Reformation did not settle every issue. There are contemporary issues that still must be handled within our context. The Reformers did not exhaust the fullness of justification. There is indeed a robustly corporate view of justification that the Reformers–rightly preoccupied with Romish theological abuse–simply did not address explicitly in the 16th century. In this sense, Wright needs to be read and listened to attentively.

Thirdly, when one poses the question of whether we should eliminate such an author from our library because he is wrong on an issue, no matter how important the issue may be, he is betraying the charitable nature of the Christian vision and our personal libraries. Of course, he may choose to avoid Wright, and other authors who also had some skeptical theological presuppositions (like C.S. Lewis), however, his theological vision will be widely narrow and his ability to articulate a vision of the world will stop at the wardrobe, while we prefer to open it up and see Narnia in all its beauty.

Finally, the West’s over-emphasis on the individual is tragic. The individual matters, but Adam himself knew that the individual is not alone. Just as the Trinity is not alone, so too man needs to be a part of something greater. “Community” is not just a buzzword no matter how often hipster Christian groups use it. In its biblical sense, community is the essence of the Christian experience. Paul’s vision was highly ecclesiastical. The individual who divorces from the community loses his ability to be truly human. He breathes and eats as a human, but his breathing and eating desecrates God’s intention to incorporate him into  a multitude. N.T. Wright offers immeasurable contributions on this subject.

Naturally, there is the possibility of over-emphasizing community, but that hardly seems to be the problem in our day. The reality is if you stress the community you get the individual, if you stress the individual you don’t get the community.

Should we read N.T. Wright? Yes. Read him often with the eyes of discernment. But again, discernment is the Christian’s best friend in any human activity.

Exhortation: Series on Church Covenant, Part II

We come to our second part of our Church Covenant, which states:

We purpose to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember one another in prayer, to help one another in sickness and distress, and to cultivate Christian compassion and courtesy.

Paul echoes these words in Galatians four when he writes:

13 For ye — to freedom ye were called, brethren, only not the freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through the love serve ye one another,

14 for all the law in one word is fulfilled — in this: `Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;’

Though we as individuals are part of the universal Church bought by the blood of Jesus, we are active members of a local congregation of that Universal Church. To be a member is to be part of something greater than ourselves; greater than our families. To be a member of a local Church is to be a member of something that will last for all eternity.

It is then simple to understand why we echo Paul’s words in Galatians. It is true that we will not perform all these things perfectly, but it is also true that we are to strive to love one another, to pray for one another, to help in times of need, and to show compassion and courtesy. The Church succeeds when these elements are stressed and applied by God’s people.

Again, I wish to stress that Church Membership gives you no excuse to sit passively. During this Lenten Season, we have even greater opportunities to express this Christian virtue of service to others. Why do members of Providence strive to live in this way? Because as Christ-followers, we are imitators of the One who served us even to the point of death. How shall they know we are Christ’s disciples? When we love one another. May we do these things for the sake of Christ and His body.

Prayer: Merciful Christ, build us up in love that we might serve one another. May the love of service increase in us during this Season, and may your Church mature in these virtues through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon: Prayer, Time and the Transformation of the World, Part II, I Timothy 2:1-4

Text: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

(1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV)

People of God, this is the last Sunday of the Church Year. Last Lord’s Day I offered a short defense of the Church Calendar, and the importance of time and liturgy. As Christians we know that time is on our side because time belongs to King Jesus, and King Jesus has graciously given time to His Bride, the Church. The Church is called to use time wisely and cheerfully for the sake of the world. In other words, when the world asks “what time is it?” it is the Church’s role to let her know, not vice-versa. We set the agenda for the world, not the opposite. Now if we could only get Christians on board in this simple proposal, then we could expect some radical things to happen in the world. But what has happened instead? Well, by and large the evangelical, Protestant Church has followed the world’s calendar. She has borrowed money from the world, and now the world wants it all back with excessively high interest rates.[1] At the end of the day we look at each other in amazement and wonder why we are losing the battle. We have been undiscerning, and unaware of how the world functions. Why? Because we don’t know how the Church functions, or what her role is in the world. Let’s be frank: when we think about time, we think more about vacation time than Church time. And we are wrong! And the fruits of this is becoming clearer and clearer in our society. There is no sense of belonging. The youth are leaving in large numbers. They are tired of lights, skits, false transparency, and religious pep-talks. We are all guided by time, but what is happening is that by the time our children turn 18 they take time into their own hands. More

Sermon: The Empty Threat of Death, Part V, I Corinthians 15:35-41

People of God, we return to our series on I Corinthians 15. One of the great accomplishments of John Calvin was his preaching ministry in Strasbourg in 1539. Many of us today still look to find brilliant analysis of different passages in Calvin’s commentaries, which were the fruit of many years of careful biblical study. Calvin left Strasbourg in 1539 in the middle of his preaching ministry, and returned in 1541. On his first Sunday back to the pulpit he picked up exactly where he left off a couple years earlier.

Your task is not as complicated. It has been a month since we last discussed I Corinthians 15, and we are going to pick up exactly where I left off in verse 35.

Let’s begin by summarizing our text.

Chapter 15 may appear to be an abrupt change of subject matter of the previous 14 chapters, but Paul is very purposeful. In essence, he is saying: “What is the use of any of these instructions? What is the use of discipline, what is the purpose of tongues in the church, of order and decency, community, love, and gifts if there is no resurrection?” More