Anxiety is fear looking for a cause. Depression is sorrow looking for a source. Once they lock on to a molehill, they make it a mountain while turning a blind eye to Jesus. Oh, and it can be debilitating.
Most people do not know this about me, but I have struggled with a chronic illness for the past 20 years. My condition has a way of effecting my nervous system in several ways. For the first several years, one of the most devastating symptoms I dealt with was anxiety. Of all the physical pain, all the dietary restrictions, and the inability to do many of the things I loved, nothing was as destructive as the fear I faced when the anxiety would strike.
These were certainly my darkest years. I remember the day I figured out how it worked. I would start to feel anxious and then my mind would search for something to cling to as its cause. It would go something like this. I would be driving home from work and the anxiety would be raging. Though nothing was wrong, I would feel like I was in danger. I remember thinking, “with my health and limited diet, it is a good thing I live in a free and prosperous country where I am can choose to eat when and what I want.” Then the thought would come, “What if the situation changes? What if you get sent to jail or something.” This would cause a spike in panic. I would immediately calm my nerves by reminding myself of the fact that I have never done anything criminal that would require jail time, and then the anxiety would do what it does so well. It would reminded me that that I could be falsely imprisoned. That was just one scenario, and there where many others. Loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of job, loss of reputation, all of these were free game for my anxiety.
Reading this, you might chuckle like I do now, but at the time the threat felt real. My nervous system would tell me I was in serious danger. That is the power of an anxiety disorder, and depression often works the same way with feelings of sorrow and despair. It cannot be laughed off. Even when you understand how it works, the emotional pain is real.
The area it affected me the most was in how I perceived my relationship to Christ. I remember thinking, when the anxiety was in full swing, that I was hopeless. This was during the time when Mercy Me’s song, I Can Only Imagine, was topping the charts. There is a lyric in there that says,
Will I stand in your presence Or to my knees will I fall
I would instead say.
Will I stand in your presence Or will I even be there at all
I cannot tell you how terrifying those times were. I repented of every sin I could think of, and then, like Luther, I began repenting of things that probably weren’t sins at all. During this time, I realized I am not the master of my fate. I am not the captain of my ship. It was here I began to turn my eyes away from myself and back to Jesus. Two truths gave me footing. Was God powerful enough to stop this? Yes. And did He know what I was going through? Again the answer was, “Yes.”
With these two truths, the sovereignty of God began take root. Regardless of how I felt, the word of God said I was His child. This meant He loved me. So if He knew this was happening, and He was powerful enough to stop it, it must be His decision that I face this: a decision He made because He loved me.
I would cry out to the Lord and say, “If you want me to draw close to you, why would you allow me to face something that literally makes you seem unapproachable?” Even though my anxiety turned a blind eye to Jesus, and every emotion in my body said He was not there for me, I had something more secure and more trustworthy than my feelings. I had the word of God.
My anxiety forced me to trust His word regardless of my fears. He is greater than our feelings. Nowhere in the scripture does it tell me to trust my emotions, but it continually tells me to trust His word.
The Lord began to give me a firm scriptural footing. The anxiety still raged, and I was still miserable, but I had a foundation. I remember attending a get together at a friend’s house. It was one of those beautiful summer evenings when everything was just right, and my soul was in anguish. I remember looking at the beautiful setting sun and saying to myself. “I may never have never have another pleasant moment in this life, but I have Jesus and He is everything” I began to see that this life is not the place we are called to rest. Our rest comes later.
This life is where we are to reflect the light of Jesus, and often, the light shines brightest in dark places. I would regularly find comfort from His word that I would have never known existed had I not been chained up in the prison of anxiety. I also began to notice that he would put someone else in my path that needed the same comfort I had been given. Had I not experienced a similar darkness, I would not have been able to comfort them in the Lord.
There are many other things I learned during this time. For example, I began to realize just how many worship songs focused on me, the singer, and how I was feeling. What I needed most during this time was not music that pointed me to my feelings, what I needed was praise that pointed me to my God. This and many other things I will need to elaborate on at another time, but let me close with the fact that the Lord did eventually move me out of that period of my life.
I still struggle with chronic illness, but the symptoms are different now. They can still be devastating, but the anxiety is not what it used to be. Now, my feelings often do line up with the truth of His word, but I still know where my foundation lies. I am not anchored to the sinking sand of my emotions, I stand on the solid rock of the word of God.
If you are reading this and you are facing a similar struggle, I hate to tell you this, but there is nothing I can do to make it end. There are paths to improvement you should be seeking like counseling, medication, and relaxation, but most importantly, trust His word, not your feelings. As His child, even when the Lord seems to be pushing you away, He is doing it in love, and you are about to learn things you would never know otherwise.
Charles Spurgeon used to suffer with depression, and when it would hit, he would hate it, fight against it, and get excited to see what God was about to do because God always ended up using it for good. It was one of the ways God taught Spurgeon how to speak the word deep into our hearts.
We live in a time when the enlightenment ideas that brought about modernism are being contested. The “we can do it” attitude is coming to an end. In the words of David F. Wells in the book, Above All Earthly Powers, he tells us that there are three fundamental beliefs of the enlightenment “The disappearance of God, the disappearance of human nature, and omnicompetence of the human being (33).” He goes on to tell us that the disappearance of God, was driven by the enlightenment thinkers “opposition to what they saw as superstition (33).” God was no longer needed and we could figure things out on our own was the attitude of the day. The disappearance of human nature was the result of the idea that we have no inherent nature, instead “we must make oneself what one can (52).” As far as the omnicompetence of the human being, Wells tells us “It is rather ironic that these first two themes—the disappearance of God and of human nature—should accompany the third, which is the bloated sense of human capacity (52).” But this is exactly what happened. We came to believe that we could do it all. We could usher in a better world, through the use of science, and know how (read philosophy).
But after a couple world wars, epidemics like AIDS, and many other problems we have been unable to solve, we have begun to loose our nerve. All of these things have begun to chip away at our hopes that modernism could usher in a utopia. So where do we go from here? Where do you go when you start to lose hope? Welcome to the new world, the postmodern world. It’s a world where we cannot figure out everything. In fact, we realize now that we cannot figure out anything. People don’t want to hear about the one true truth. They have been let down by modernism which promised that truth can be known. Now we just need to know what works.
How does this shift effect the church? Should the church embrace these new ideas and trends, or should it continue in its same old ways. There are many who argue that if the church does not break free from the grip of modernism, it is destined to fail. This was the view of the emergent church, a movement within church which desired to reach this postmodern culture. A movement that believes the church has bought into the modernist views and needs to correct itself. Leonard Sweet, a proponent of the emergent church, claims that his book Postmodern Pilgrims “aims to demodernize the Christian consciousness and reshape its way of life according to a more biblical vision of life that is dawning with the coming of the postmodern era (Sweet, XVII).” But is this what the Church needs to survive and be more “Biblical?”
Though the emergent church has all but vanished from the horizon, their postmodern views still hold many churches and Christian universities captive. The remainder of this article will focus on explaining the Emergent views on such topics as foundationalism, language theory, and other basic doctrines. It will then look at its destructive effects on Christian doctrine, theology, and evangelism. Finally, it will conclude by offering a proper view regarding these topics and offer some final thoughts.
Explaining Emergent Views
One of the main views expressed by postmoderns of the secular and theistic type, is that there is no such thing as universal objective truth. Objective truth is truth that is true for all people in all places at all times. The reason they deny this is because they do not think it is possible to know any true thought since all thoughts are language-based and all language is contingent. This will be addressed further, but the first attempt they make at discounting truth is by discounting foundationalism.
Foundationalism is the belief that there are two different types of beliefs, basic and non-basic. In the words of Ronald Nash, non-basic or “derivative beliefs are those that are grounded on or dependent in some way on more basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are those not derived from or dependent on other beliefs (Nash, 81).” Foundationalism is the idea that a person’s noetic structure is built from the bottom up. The basic beliefs are those that need no other support in order for a person to be rational and hold them. The non-basic beliefs cannot be held rationally unless something more basic supports them. An example of a basic belief would be that you exist. In order for you to believe that you exist, you do not need evidential proof. Nor do you need to attempt to prove it to someone else. This is a basic belief. A non-basic belief would be something like; God saves those who believe in His Son. This belief is supported by other more basic beliefs like, people exist and God exists.
There are two types of foundationalism. Narrow and broad foundationalism as described by Nash, or Cartesian and modest as described by J.P. Moreland in the book Reclaiming the Center. Narrow or Cartesian foundationalism is the belief that in order for a belief to be basic it must have 100% certainty. Nash explains that in order for a belief to be basic according to narrow foundationalism it must meet three criteria. Basic beliefs are “beliefs that are evident to the senses, self-evident, or incorrigible may be properly basic (Nash 81).” This simply means that no belief can be properly basic that is not experienced with the senses of human experience, self evident in the sense that they are seen as true or false simply by understanding them (82), and cannot be proven false. But as Nash quotes Alvin Plantinga when he says, “Many propositions fail the narrow foundationalist’s tests are properly basic for me. I believe, for example, that I had lunch this noon. I do not believe this proposition on the basis of other propositions; I take it as basic’ it is in the foundations of my noetic structure. Furthermore, I am entirely rational in so taking it, even though this proposition is neither self-evident nor evident to the senses nor incorrigible (86).” Broad or modest foundationalism makes room for these kinds of basic beliefs saying that 100% certainty is not needed in order to be a rational basic belief.
Postmodern epistemology rejects this type of thinking. They see no difference between basic and non-basic beliefs. First, they do not believe that there is any way possible to have 100% certainty on any belief, and if you cannot have certainty, then it cannot be a true foundation. Second they believe that if a belief is not certain, then it cannot be basic because it must be supported by some other beliefs. Nancy Murphy, a proponent of the postmodern view, says that with modest foundationalism we have “foundations hanging from a balcony (Erickson, 109).” What she means by this is that our theory and presuppositions will end up holding our foundations instead of our foundation holding up our theories. This means that our basic beliefs are contingent upon our theories which are non-basic, making our basic beliefs non-basic also. The postmodern goes on to explain that since we cannot have any true basic beliefs, foundationalism must be a false system of epistemology.
Correspondence theory of truth
In all of this, they argue that if we cannot have any certain foundation upon which to build our noetic structure then we do not really have any access to the outside world to say that our belief system actually corresponds to reality. This is why they reject the correspondence theory of truth. This is the theory that the truths we hold actually correspond to the world as it really is. If someone was to say that the sun is hot, it is usually understood that what the person means is that in the world as it really is, the sun is hot. The postmodern’s second attack upon foundationalism comes in at this point. Besides simply arguing that there is no such thing as a basic belief, they go on to say that, all truth is linguistically constructed and all language is contingent upon many different factors such as community, experience, et. al. Because of this, our language cannot correspond to the world as it really is because our language is “in” the world. R. Scott Smith explains the views of Stanley Grenz and John Franke in this way, “What is it that stands between the ‘real’ world and us? It is language, such that, as Grenz and Franke say, “We do not inhabit the ‘world-in–itself’; instead, we live in a linguistic world of our own making (Erickson, 110).”
Richard Rorty, a major non-Christian postmodern philosopher puts it this way, “To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human language, and that human languages are human creations (Rorty, 5).” This is obviously stating that truth is a human creation. We do not have access to objective truth; instead we create our truth with our language. Again truth does not correspond to reality. Rorty goes on to say, “Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there (5).” In other words, since there are no true sentences out there in order for our sentences to correspond with, then our sentences cannot correspond to the real world.
Coherence Theory of Truth
So where does this leave us? If foundationalism is false and the correspondence theory of truth is false, how should we look at truth? The postmodern view is known as the Coherence theory of truth and it is also called Holism by those in the postmodern church. Since there is no foundation that our “truth” can be tied to, the only way it can be supported is by itself. In other words, the most important aspect of “truth” is that our system as a whole is consistent and non-contradictory. The postmodern view leans heavily upon W.V.O. Quine’s “web of belief”. Tony Jones in the book Postmodern Youth Ministry explains it this way, “The fabric, or “web of Belief,” is fashioned by human beings—there is no divinely inspired web (Jones, 138).” He later goes on to say, “Instead of being based upon on indubitable truth-doctrine, the web has truths-doctrine distributed throughout. Therefore, if one truth-doctrine gets adjusted or overthrown by a new discovery, the web repairs itself by adjusting or tweaking other doctrines (138).”
The argument can basically be boiled down to this, that a truth system, or “web” is not founded upon any foundation, instead it is an integrated system that supports itself. But this does not give us any answers as to what is actually true; it only tells us if our beliefs are coherent with each other. On top of this, if no truth statement can actually correspond to reality, where do we get our stability? How do we know our web is the right one?
In order to maintain some objectivity they appeal to eschatological realism. This is the view that we are working toward a community that will eventually understand correctly. “This vantage point provides the world with its main sense of objectivity (Erickson, 119).” But the question may still arise as to how these truthful eschatological communities are created if we cannot know anything with our fallible tradition invading them? The answer is that they are created by the working of the Holy Spirit. Smith goes on to explain the views of Grenz and Franke. “Even though each community will have its own nuances, they will all have something in common. The Spirit will speak through the Biblical texts, and it will guide them to be a community of Christ (119).”
What is the point of all this? According to postmoderns, the Church should stop focusing on trying to prove all these independent truth claims as true and let the “web” of Christianity support the claims. Our focus should be to live out our beliefs in our Christian communities and let the Holy Spirit move us toward the eschatological community where we will be able to see what is really true. In doing this we will be boldly witnessing our faith by our lives. We will have a strong body of Christ because we will be less divided by independent doctrines, and we will grow as individuals as we are in this community of Christ and become more like Christ.
The Dangerous fallout of These Views
The relief from always having to try and prove your Christian faith sounds like a welcome idea, and the desire to grow into the likeness of Christ in a community that is modeled after him sure seems to be a wonderful aspiration. So, should we really be concerned with these postmodern views? Should we not join them, and do what Leonard Sweet told us at the beginning of this post? Should we shake free from these modern entrapments such as foundationalism and the correspondence theory of truth and get back to a more “Biblical” Christianity? After taking a closer look at the effects of these theories it will be evident that we should not join them.
The heart of their view is that we cannot have access to the real world. Everything we believe is true is really something we have created because of our theories, which are contingent upon our communities, which themselves are contingent. Here is the rub, if no proposition we believe actually corresponds to reality, than nothing we believe is actually true. Then what does this say about all of their theories? What becomes then of all their reasoning for replacing foundationalism with holism? Doesn’t this just make their own theories constructs that they have linguistically created to make their truth? Are not their theories also contingent upon their presuppositions that they have no rational basis for holding? Their entire system then becomes self refuting. Why should we shift our created beliefs over to their created beliefs? This is the major flaw upon which the entire postmodern theory stands.
This forces postmoderns to look to pragmatic results of language instead of whether or not it is true. Pragmatism is the theory that we should do what works. If we cannot know if something is really true, then the best way to judge it is by whether it works or not. The Christian language, according to the emergent church, is the best possible language. Not because it is the one that most corresponds to reality but because it holds together tightly and it works. It works in producing good and not evil.
What then does this do to orthodox Christianity and its doctrines? To answer this I will follow the lead of R. Scott Smith and apply their views to a few core Christian Doctrines.
The Doctrine of Divine Revelation
Christians believe that God exists and that He can communicates truth about Himself to us. He does this, as Luis Berkhof explains, through two different revelations, general and special. “The general revelation of God is prior to His special revelation in point in time. It does not come to man in the form of verbal communications, but in the facts, the forces, and the laws of nature, in the constitution and operation of the human mind, and in the facts and experience and history (Berkhof, 13).” “In addition to the revelation of God in nature, we have His special revelation which is now embodied in Scripture (14).” But if the postmodern view is correct, then God cannot truthfully communicate to us because we cannot escape language. Any truth He tries to communicate to us either through general or special revelation, we end up creating ourselves with our specific language. Ultimately, we cannot know anything objectively true about God. If we do not inhabit the world as it really is, instead we inhabit a linguistic world of our own making, then this leads to a major incoherence in the Christian “web” of belief, because idolatry is prohibited. Smith makes this revealing comment, “Therefore, no matter how God tries to reveal himself and objective truth, we cannot know such revelation in itself. Accordingly, we make the revelation what it is for us by how we talk about it. The same goes for God himself. We cannot know God as he is in himself, so we must make God by how we use our language. But that result is plainly idolatrous on the terms of conservative Christians’ own grammar, the Bible. If I am right, then that result alone ought to make us pause and give up these post-conservative views. (Erickson, 127).” In the book Truth and The New Kind of Christian he says it like this “Quite simply, Christians cannot know God as He is if we are on the “inside” of the pervasive influences of language, as these Christian postmodernist believe. Just like any other aspect of our “reality,” Christians construct God by how they talk. We make God into what He is—for us. This conclusion, however, results in the absurd condition that Christians must be idolaters (Smith, 145).”
Now the objection to these quotes might be raised that postmoderns do believe that God can actually reveal Himself and is doing so. After all they believe that the Holy Spirit, through the narrative of the Scripture is leading them on to the true eschatological community. But the question still remains as to what the Holy Spirit is. Is He something that actually exists in the real world or is it simply the linguistic construct that Christians have created? Also, what is the eschatological community of Christ that we are working toward? Is this not the same, a created linguistic truth? Or is it something that actually corresponds to reality. Either way they answer this question leads them into trouble. If they say it is a created linguistic truth then it cannot be objectively true, and if they say it actually corresponds to reality then they have refuted their own system. Also, if this is the one truth that corresponds to reality then why can’t this be the foundation upon which we can build our doctrine?
We also have the problem of which eschatological community is the correct one. Rorty, the non-Christian, also believes we are moving toward a “liberal society” (Rorty, 60).” But the community he is moving toward is not the Christian one. So which future community is the right one, and how do they know this?
The Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Atonement
What do these theories do to the Doctrine of the crucifixion, resurrection, and the atonement? Christians believe that Christ was crucified and rose for our justification, but these too would be constructions of our language. But do the truths we hold regarding these events actually correspond to reality? To say no is quite damaging to these doctrines because the truth then is not found in the actual propositions but what they produce in you. So the question must then be asked, does this make all savior stories valid because they move us toward this eschatological community? And which theory of the atonement is really true, the moral influence, substitutionary limited atonement, or universal atonement to name three? Does it really matter what theory we hold as long as it makes us good community participants, and who decides what a good community participants is?
Luther said that the doctrine of Justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls. But what does the postmodern view of truth do to the doctrine of Justification? Christian’s believe that we are sinful and deserve the wrath of God, and it is only by faith that we can be justified. But if the postmodern view is correct, then justification becomes a truth that we create in our linguistic community, and we cannot know whether or not justification has actually taken place in the real world, or if we are really even sinners.
One of the main problem with the emergent view on this doctrine is that since we cannot say it is an objective reality, we must look at its pragmatic results. But if we turn the doctrine of justification into something that works, then we must ask, works to do what? It seems that the emergent answer is whether or not it works to make us better people in the community we find ourselves. This is why we see a strong bent toward the Roman doctrine that justification and sanctification are two sides of the same coin. Jones makes this statement, “We must end the false dichotomy between justification and sanctification (133).” Jones had been speaking about salvation and how justification is not a one time thing and how it is a process. The implication of this view is that the way you get justified is by becoming just (not imputed righteousness). The way you are to do this according to the emergent view, is by getting involved in a Christian community and learning the Christian language. As you do this you become more and more sanctified which is the same as becoming more justified. This leads to problems because it then makes justification based upon something we do, which clearly does not cohere in the Christian “web” as laid out in scripture.
What effects do theses views of language and truth have upon Christian Theology? Besides the main problem that it makes knowledge of God and the study of Him ultimately impossible, because we cannot really know anything objectively true about God, it shifts the focus of theology away from God and places it upon the study of language theory. Much like most liberal schools, they end up talking more about the method of theology than actually doing it.
Finally what does this do to the main focus of evangelism through the Christian community which the emergent church so strongly endorses? After all this is one of the attractive aspects of the movement; the idea that we should stop trying to prove that what we believe is true and just live it. But this involves a major problem because it assumes that the actions of the Christian community can be understood outside of the Christian community which is self-refuting to their own claims (Erickson, 130). It is self-refuting because they believe that people outside of their community cannot understand their language unless they participate in it. Ultimately, true witnessing of Jesus becomes impossible in their view.
A Proper Understanding
So how should we look at all of this? Has foundationalism been destroyed? Should we look to Quine’s “web of belief” to understand truth? To look at this let us start by critiquing the coherence theory of truth.
Critique of the Coherence Theory of Truth It must be stated that the coherence theory of truth, much like many of the ideas of postmoderns, has some truth in it. Our noetic structure is an integrated “web” with many connections. The reason we believe some things is because of the logical connections to other beliefs. A good example of this is the doctrine of verbal inspiration of Scripture. The verbal inspiration of Scripture is the truth that the Bible is exactly word-for-word what God wanted to say. But to understand and believe this doctrine you must believe and understand other things about God. Gordon H. Clark makes this quote, “Verbal inspiration therefore must be understood in connection with the complete system of Christian doctrine. It may not be detached there from, and a fortiori it may not be framed in an alien view of God. Verbal inspiration is integral with the doctrines of providence and predestination. When the liberals surreptitiously deny predestination in picturing God as dictating to stenographers, they so misrepresent verbal inspiration that their objections do not apply to the God of the Bible (Clark, 44).”
So where is the problem with the coherence theory of truth? The problem lies in the fact that it is not grounded to anything other than pragmatism, and the ideas of what works are also ideas in their web that are not grounded to anything. To put it another way, there are many free floating webs of belief out there and none of them are tethered to any foundation. So what do we do with all these competing webs of truth? Is there anyway to get to any kind of neutral standpoint from which to judge? The resounding answer from the postmoderns is no. There is no way to see if one web is better than another, which ultimately leads to relativism. Even if they argue that the truest one is the one that is most coherent in itself, the only way to find out how coherent it is is to become part of every community, learn their language and see which is the most coherent. Since this can never be done, you can never know if your web is the most coherent.
Foundationalism Misrepresented One of the main problems with the postmodern rejection of foundationalism is that it focuses only on a specific kind of foundationalism. The attacks that come upon foundationalism always focus on Cartesian foundationalism, which is the idea that you must have 100% certainty to be a basic belief. On top of this, most philosophers who promote this type of foundationalism are empiricists. The problem with this is that this is not the type of foundationalism that is held by many theologians or lay people in the church. What is held today is more of a modest foundationalism. 100% empiric certainty is not needed in order to have a real foundational belief. Not to mention the criteria for certainty is rarely discussed. It is simply assumed to be scientific proof (read empiric).
The Biblical View
If the Bible is true then there are things we know, and we know them certainly. For example Romans chapter 1 tells us that all men know that God exists, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” The problem is not with foundational knowledge, it is with our sinful nature which does everything it can to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Scripture tells us on many occasions that we “may know” that the son of man has the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6; Mar. 2:10; Luke 5:24). The scriptural language seems to say that we can actually know this, and do not create it in our linguistic world.
What about Rorty’s claim that if truth is propositional and there are no propositions “out there” for our propositions to line up with, then they can’t really be true? How does the Christian worldview answer this? Scripture clearly tells us that God can communicate truth, and God does it propositionally in Scripture. This tells us something about the mind of God. It contains truth. This simply means that the propositions are out there for our propositions to line up to. Every time we think of a proposition that lines up with a proposition in the mind of God, it is a true proposition. In Nash’s book, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, he makes this point quite clearly when he says, “Few Christians have any difficulty affirming the following three propositions: (a) 1 plus 1 equals 2; (b) God knows that 1 plus 1 equals 2; and (c) when a human being knows that 1 plus 1 equals 2, his or her knowledge is identical with God’s knowledge of the same proposition (Nash, 100).”
The Wrong Solution
It seems by reading many of the postmodern’s books, that much of what is driving them into postmodernism is the lack of humility that comes from some pulpits, legalism, and extreme fundamentalism. These are problems that should be addressed, but postmodernism is the wrong solution. There are many church leaders who hold to the correspondence theory of truth who are not arrogant with the truth, legalistic, or extreme in their fundamentalism. Foundationalism is not the cause of these attitudes; in fact these attitudes appear in the emergent church also. There are those who think they understand the way things should be, and if you are not postmodern you are given a smug look and a roll of the eyes. Abandoning the idea of truth is not the answer to these problems. The emergent church with all of its motives that seem to be in line with Godly living, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For if truth is gone, then what is Godly living and all these motives and attitudes they promote, but constructs in their linguistic world. To put it into one of H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories, all we have is the “Christ of Culture (Neibuhr, 83).” The Christ each culture creates, and this is not the Christ of Scripture.
Berkhof, Louis, Summary of Christian Doctrine, (Eerdmans, 1938)
Clark, Gordon H., God’s Hammer, The Bible and Its Critics, (Trinity, 1982)
Erickson, Millard J., Reclaiming the Center, (Crossway, 2004)
Why did Jesus have to die? Many object to the fact that Christ had to be put to death and that blood had to be shed for the remission of sins (Matt 26:28). They believe this is unbecoming of God. Others believe that if we as humans can forgive each other without punishment and God cannot, then humans are more kind and forgiving than God.*
We hear these arguments coming from people who think they need to protect God from the doctrine of penal substitution. Besides their lack of understanding scripture, these arguments escape reason. They escape reason because the same people who make these arguments then go on to make distinctions between good and evil and preach moral living.
Why should man be moral? Why is it wrong to be immoral? These are the questions Anselm raised when dealing with the necessity of Christ’s death. He then went on to lay out the following argument:
To remit sin without satisfaction or adjustment is not to punish it.
And if sin needs no adjustment or punishment, then the one who sins is no different before God than the one who does not sin.
And if there is no adjustment that needs to be made before God, then what needs to be forgiven?
Following this logic there is no reason for forgiveness at all because to be unrighteous or righteous makes no difference before God.
Therefore, it is unbecoming of God not to punish sin because it would make evil and good equal in His sight.
Since this cannot be the case, then God must punish sin.
The idea that God can forgive sin without requiring its just punishment leads us to another conundrum. If it is true that God does not need to justly punish sin, then anyone He sends to hell would be sent there arbitrarily and not out of necessity. Of course, that would be reprehensible which is why many who reject penal substitution eventually become universalists (the idea, contrary to scripture, that no one will go to hell).
The wages of sin is death according to scripture (Rom. 6:23). For God to offer forgiveness, the satisfaction of these wages must be met. This is what the cross is all about. Christ bore upon Himself the sins of all those who come to Him through faith. It necessarily had to happen in order for God to be both just and the justifier of those who believe in Him (Rom. 3:26).
Every sin will receive its just recompense. Either we will pay for it ourselves, or, through faith, we will accept His payment upon the cross on our behalf.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4
*Even we cannot forgive each other without a cost being paid. If you break my lamp on purpose, and I say, “I forgive you,” some one has to pay for the new lamp. If I slander your good name, and you say, “I forgive you,” there is still a cost. Either you will bear the damage I have done to your reputation, or, if I go to all your friends and tell them I slandered, I will bear a loss of my own reputation. More importantly, even those sins against each other are sins against God for which either we will pay or Christ will bear in our place. Even among each other, sin always has a cost.
This morning I had the privilege of preaching at First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. We took some time to look at the Cities of Refuge found in the Old Testament and the amazing picture of Jesus they paint for us.
What an honor! You have been asked to preach. After the initial excitement wears off, you start to think, “What have I gotten myself into.” How do I prepare a sermon? There are about as many ways to do this as there are preachers, so what I am about to present should not be taken as dogma. It is simply an example from which you may benefit. I also realize that many full-time pastors already have their routine, so I am presenting this as a layman, for laymen.
Sermon preparation is as important to preaching as the act of preaching itself, if not more so. As the preacher, we not only need to prepare our message, but we need to prepare our hearts as well. Accomplishing both should be our goal of our preparation.
The plan below assumes that you already know the passage of scripture from which you will be preaching. Please note, if you are currently writing a sermon and you do not know what your main text is (or texts), what you are preparing is a talk, not a sermon: even if you give your talk with passion and emotion. The word of God is what we are called to proclaim, not our own ideas. If you have not been assigned a text, find a passage of scripture and that ministers to you and stick with it; preferably something with which you are already familiar.
Step 1: Pray Without Ceasing (All 7 Days)
If you are being asked to preach, you are most likely a man of prayer already, but this week you will need to be more so. There is no specific time you should be praying as you prepare. You should be praying continually all week. Pray first for your own spiritual condition. Ask for forgiveness for all your sins. You are not entering the pulpit as the perfect spiritual specimen. Repent and guard your heart. You are weak and vulnerable to all kinds of temptations, especially pride.
The only fit condition for you to enter the pulpit is in recognizing your utter weakness to accomplish anything for the Lord if he does not move. If the Spirit of God is not at work in your heart, and the heart of your hearers, this will simply be another act of a man speaking and people hearing without spiritual benefit. This can happen even if you moved them to tears, and they loved every minute of it. If the Spirit of God is not involved, you might as well read the dictionary to the congregation. Ask the Lord to move in you and your hearers.
Step 2. Read. Study. Listen. (3-6 hours)
This is where you feed yourself full. Your goal is to understand the text. Read the larger context of the passage (preferably the entire book of scripture), study commentaries, and listen to other sermons on the passage you will be covering. For myself, I tend to do this Monday through Wednesday. I work full-time, so my prep time is limited. I typically put in a total of three to six hours over the course of the three days. This includes listening to sermons as I drive to work or walk the dog.
As you are going through this process, the goal, once you understand the passage, is to ask yourself, how these truths speak to our spiritual lives. Why is this passage of scripture important? If you are in the right frame spiritually, the Lord will begin to minister to you through His word. Once you have been warned, comforted, and encouraged by His truth, you are ready to preach it to others and not until then.
Remember, if you are not excited about the passage you are preaching, neither will your hearers, and I am not talking about artificial hype. Too many churches try to cover their lack of interest in the word of God with entertainment. Pastors often do this in their sermons as well. Do not do that. Whether or not the church where you will be preaching has all of these trappings is not the point. You need to ask, do I believe the passage of scripture I am about to preach is important enough that I am comfortable walking into a situation that will be boring if God does not show up? Has God ministered to you through the process of studying so much that the message is beginning to burn within you, and will you not be satisfied until you are able to share it with others? That is when you know you are ready to preach.
Step 3: Write (2 hours)
At this point, you are ready to sit down and write, and by write, I mean either manuscript, manuscript notes, or outline. Whatever it is that you want to bring into the pulpit, that is what you want to prepare. I tend to write manuscript notes. This means I write in an outline form, but the outline is so complete, that if you read it out loud, it would almost sound like you are reading a manuscript.
Whatever format you choose, it is important that you realize that you are not to fit everything you studied into your sermon. As that Lord was ministering to you in your studies, you most likely landed on one to three points from the text you are longing to make. Only use the material from your studies that help you make those points.
You are not called to exhaust the text or your hearers. Remember, this is the Word of God. Thousands of sermons could be preached from this passage, and you are only called to preach one for now. Don’t try to preach them all. Knowing what to leave out is crucial to sermon preparation, and this is where many preachers err.
For myself, I usually sit down for two hours on Thursday night and write the sermon. Avoid the temptation to make it perfect. Your goal at this point is to get something down on paper which resembles a sermon. You still have two days to refine it.
Step 4: Review, Edit, Rehearse (2-3 hours)
Yes, I said rehearse. There is something, probably pride, that wells up within us and says, “If I have to rehearse, it is not from the heart or led by the Holy Spirit.” That is a lie. Rehearsal does not cancel out the work of the Holy Spirit. It is often the means he uses to hone the message.
As you begin to talk your way through your sermon, you will notice phrases in your notes that do not quite work. You may even realize you need to rearrange your points. By practicing your sermon, you get to hear it in its allotted time span. By doing this, you will get a better feel for the flow and the connectivity of the points and illustrations. This is something you were unable to experience during the slower writing process.
As you run through it, make edits in the margin, and then go update your notes. You will be amazed by the things the Lord brings to your mind to enhance the sermon as you do this. You will find yourself recalling other relevant verses, biblical illustrations, and examples from life that you did not think of as you studied and wrote. In the end, I usually try to preach the sermon twice before I enter the pulpit. Once on Friday, and once on Saturday.
When I walk to the pulpit. My notes are typically 95% typed and 5% handwritten notes in the margin. I am usually making notes up to the point I enter the pulpit.
Step 5: Preach
You have now done your due diligence. You have been praying for yourself, the congregation, and the message. Now it is time to put it all in God’s hands and deliver it. In the delivery, remember, you are not preaching at the congregation. You are preaching to yourself as much as anyone. Preach as if your life is dependent upon the Gospel you preach because it is.
As you preach, you may stumble over your words, nerves may cloud your thinking, or you may feel absolute freedom. None of that proves the success or the failure of the sermon. You will never know who the Lord will minister to secretly. Your job is to simply present the truth. If you have done that, you have done your job whether the people like it or not. It is now up to the Lord to produce the results.
Now that you are done, listen to the godly men and women in the congregation who give you feedback. They are often God’s voice to you to help you improve if you are asked to preach again. Accept criticism with humility, and remember any praise you receive belongs to the Lord because you went into the pulpit weak and helpless entirely dependent upon Him.
May our Lord, Jesus Christ, be glorified by your efforts.
One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, `My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand up right, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, “I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.” By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge….You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds.
But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew, and they were in dread of the children of Israel. – Ex. 1:12
At this point in history, the Israelites were in Egypt because of God’s sovereign work through Joseph. They had been living in freedom and peace, when a new pharaoh comes into power and sees their prosperity. He does not regard Joseph’s memory, and he became concerned with Israel’s growth so he and the Egyptians begin to oppress God’s chosen people, but the more they afflicted them, the more they grew.
Within this historical truth we find a spiritual truth. Many people live in fear of Satan, but as children of God we need not fear, for he is fulfilling God’s will in our lives. He is so blinded with pride that he thinks he is thwarting God’s plan but is in fact helping to fulfill it.
When the Lord allows Satan and his demons to mettle in a Christian’s life, it is for a good reason. We know this because all things work together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). God has started a good work in us which He will finish, and the more we are afflicted, the more we grow. Until, to Satan’s demise, He is in dread of us.
An example of this can be seen in the life of Peter. Satan, during the crucifixion, asked to sift him, and God allows him to do so. As a result of this sifting, Peter commits one of the most heinous sins possible, he denies Christ three times. Failure and affliction have hit hard, but to Satan’s dismay, it is this fall that the Lord used to grow Peter’s faith and make him more like Christ. After Jesus restores Peter with three affirmations, the same number as Peter’s denials, Peter then goes on to lead thousands to the Lord, and his testimony is still encouraging people today. After Satan thought he had defeated him, Peter became a dread to Satan. You can be sure that Satan regrets ever tempting Peter in that way.
Now many may say, it’s how you respond to affliction that matters. But we need to look at why Peter responded correctly. He responded correctly because God convicted him of his sin. God broke his heart instead of letting Peter harden it. God did it all. Why? Because Peter was one of His, and of us, He will not lose one. Sanctification is what God does in us, it is not what we do for God. What we end up doing for Him is merely a response of what He is doing in us.
As we face the schemes of the Devil, remember, God is always working in His Children, and He uses many things to grow our faith: even afflictions, temptations, and failures. So when you feel that the prince and the power of the air is winning the fight, remember he is only playing right into the hands of our Father.
To quote John Bunyan, let us never forget, “When Satan, death, the grave, and sin have done whatever they can do, we are still more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:37).”
Finally, let us never forget that, ultimately, it is not us that Satan dreads, it is God’s Spirit who is at work within us. For greater is He that is in us, than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).
In my studies of Scripture and theology, I occasionally run across someone who sees me reading a systematic theology or commentary, who says to me, “I don’t need all those other books, I only need the Bible.” This statement is troublesome because, in one sense, it is arrogant. Does this person really think they have enough brain power and spiritual fortitude to gain as much understanding and wisdom as the whole community of faith combined, without their assistance. I realize they do not mean it this way because they have not thought through the logical implications of their statement so grace needs to be extended, but the statement is dangerous.
There is one sense, however, that the statement is true, and it is this sense that causes them to make the statement in the first place. If we did not have access to any other books and only had the Bible, it would be enough. We could still be saved and experience growth in the Lord, but the Lord never intended us to live our lives shunning the wisdom of other believers. Building each other up is one of the reasons He calls us to be part of a local church.
The Lord has given us many books, which are simply the written thoughts of the community of faith, to help us to grow in the grace and knowledge of His word. Wayne Grudem, in his systematic theology says, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers (1Cor. 12:28). We should allow those gifts of teaching to help us understand Scripture.” To think that we, somehow, do not need these God ordained teachers, or that none of the books they have written could be any help to us, rejects God’s word which tells us he has given us these teachers.
They also seem to be using a double standard when it come to books. I was once told I should not read commentaries because they were all fallible, and I should only read the Bible. When I asked the if he went to church to listen to sermons, he said, “of course I do.” He began to stumble when I asked him if his pastor was fallible. A good commentary and good pastor often do similar things, they explain and proclaim the meaning of the text. If you are going to reject one, you will have to reject the other. I suggest embracing both as gifts from God.
I do realize that some neglect the scriptures in order to read all these other books and that is equally dangerous, but we should utilize what the Lord has given us through men and women who have been given the gift of teaching. Though, unlike the Bible, they are fallible, just like the the teaching of the man who says we do not need other books, there is truth in there from which we should benefit.
And let us not forget Spurgeon who said: “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.”
Post Script: I realize that someone who refuses to read Christian writings other than the Bible will not be reading this blog, which means I am preaching to the choir. However, if you run into one of them, maybe you can pass the message along.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. – Micah 7:18-19
Even as Christians, the greatest storm we face is the sin that rages in us. It crouches at our door, its desire is for us, and its only fruit is destruction. It threatens to sear our consciences, hinder our prayers, and even cause our love for Christ to grow cold. But even when we fail, and some of these things begin to be seen in our lives, let us never forget that our God will have compassion on His children. He delights in mercy, He will turn again to us to subdue our iniquities, and cast’s our sins to the depths of the sea.
Do you see dear believer what hope is found in this Scripture? God is not looking to help you because you have been perfect and you deserve to be helped. He desires to pardon your iniquity. He knows you have sinned and need to be delivered. He has placed the wrath that your sins deserve on Christ your substitution. And though your sinful heart still threatens to toss you where it will, like a lost vessel on an angry sea, our God anchors you with a strong and secure hope.
Grab hold of Christ who is that hope. Like an anchor securing a ship on a stormy sea has plunged beneath the veil of the water and cannot be seen, so Christ has entered within the veil; where he has gone as a forerunner on your behalf (Heb. 6:17). And though we cannot see Him at this moment, the hope he has given us is like a secure chain anchored to the throne of God, which is pulling us home through the tumultuous sea.
As the storms grow stronger, by His grace He strengthens our hold upon this hope, as we learn that nothing else can save us. The tighter we hold to our hope, the more tight the line between us and our true home becomes, until we can feel it pulling us homeward.
Though the storms of sin surround, take heart that your sins have been removed, and you are anchored to the distant shore through Christ. Fear not, for no surer hope has ever been tested, and as your love for this world slowly weakens, you will notice the chain between you and your true home has become that much shorter. When you see this, you will know He has turned to you, and is having compassion upon you, because this is work that only He can do.
Let us end with a short verse by Charles Spurgeon, who inspired most of the content of this devotion.
Let the winds blow, and billows roll, Hope is the anchor of my soul. But can I by so slight a tie, And unseen hope, on God rely? Steadfast and sure, it cannot fail, It enters deep within the veil, It fastens on a land unknown, And moors me to my Father’s throne.
His eyes looked at me with such compassion I was sure I had found someone who understood, but that was not entirely the case. As I mentioned before, the skies have turned dark, and that darkness has begun to stir something deep within me
When I first saw him coming, I knew he cared and was going out of his way to minister to me. At first, he just sat with me, not saying anything, and that spoke such profound peace and compassion because it made me feel like I was not the only one feeling the weight of the storm. Then he began to speak, and my heart welled up with anticipation because if he was such a comfort when he was silent, how much more would he be a blessing when he started to talk.
At first, he reminded me that suffering exists in this life because of sin. Adam’s transgression opened up the world to all kinds of sickness, hardship, and even death. If it were not for sin in this world, there would be no suffering, but we have a Savior who has dealt with sin on the cross. In rising again, he defeated death and showed that all of our transgressions for which he had to pay, were atoned. He then proceeded to say that Christ would set all things right. My mind began to settle in on this truth. It reminded me that any of the sufferings I was facing, had nothing to do with God’s wrath because that had been satisfied in Christ on the cross. Then he began to tell me that we are saved by faith, and with this, I certainly agreed. In fact, I have said that this fight I am in is a fight of faith.
He then continued to instruct me by quoting our Savior saying that if our faith is strong enough, we can begin to move mountains. “We must trust that God has the power to clear these dark skies, and if we would claim that truth, then God would do it.” In essence, God would see our faith and move on our behalf. He explained that we have the Spirit of God living in us, and since he could speak things into existence, so could we.
He advised me always to speak positive words and think positive thoughts. I should not even acknowledge the dark skies existed. I should call things as I want them to be instead of as they are. This new thought would show God my faith, and he would perform the miracle I needed.
My heart wanted this to be true. As I’ve mentioned before I have a natural desire to be in control, and if there’s something I can do, then I feel it is something I can control. His discourse hit me in many ways that both stirred me to action and emptied me of my resolve. I could not figure out why his words troubled me so much.
Then it hit me. His statements came with a corollary thought that he was not saying out loud. If mustering up enough mental determination, which he called faith, could deliver me from this darkness and give me all I desired, then the very reason I am facing this now was my fault. If I control the Sovereign One through my faith, then any darkness in my life was a result of my lack of faith.
My mind immediately went to all the great saints in scripture: Moses, Abraham, David, Matthew, Joseph, John, and Paul. These were men of great faith who faced darker skies than I can even imagine, and scripture nowhere paints a picture that it was because of a lack of faith on their part. It was often just the opposite. God allowed the dark skies to reveal his glory and strength in their lives. God often paints bright hope across a dark and ominous canvas.
I realized at that point that my friend was Job’s friend. For the first time, his real name was revealed to me. Some have called him Half-truth. I remember reading through Job with the understanding that nowhere in the book was God sovereignty over Job suffering ever questioned, and it was not due to a lack of faith on Job’s part.
When I would read through Job, I would see the God-ordained trials he faced, and then, on top of it all, I would see Job’s friends piling on. Then something clicked, Job’s poor comforters were not some add-on that only happened by chance. They were part of God’s sovereign plan as well.
In the end, it was the suffering inflicted by his friends that God used as the dark canvas to paint hope for the rest of us to see. Just think, how many of us has God helped by Job’s response to his friends? Those speakers of half-truths that condemned Job for his situation are still around today. If you don’t find them surrounding you, you will often find them living within you.
You may be facing accusing voices in your life as well, and we must correct their errors with the Word of God. Never forget that these speakers of half-truth are also part of Gods’ plan for you. Often what God is showing us when they arrive and begin to tell us that God would fix everything in this life if we truly trusted him, is that we are not supposed to place our ultimate hope in our friends or ourselves. We must fully trust in him and his plan. The other thing that begins to be corrected is our false expectations. It is not as if God has failed to do what he was supposed to do; we were simply expecting things from him that he never promised. It is much like when some of Jesus’ followers stopped following him because he was crucified. They expected Christ to reign without a cross. Instead, Jesus reigns through his suffering, and that plan is still in effect today.
God is still using unresolved difficulty in our lives to show his glory, and part of the dark canvas he is using as the backdrop to bring hope to a fallen world may include accusing voices. All things are under his sovereign plan.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith-more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 1:6-7