Sunday, September 19, 2021

Evangelicalism in Crisis Part 4: The Simple Neglect of Scripture

Last week my wife and I watched the movie Walk the Line about Johnny Cash. He had an older brother, Jack, who as a boy was very devout and was planning to be a preacher until he died in a tragic accident. There is a scene early in that film where Jack is reading the Bible and little Johnny asks him about it, and Jack says, “If I’m going to be a preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. I mean you can’t help nobody if you ain’t telling the right story.”

Those are compelling words of wisdom from some perceptive screenwriter’s take on Johnny Cash’s fondly remembered brother. “If I’m going to be a preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. You can’t help nobody if you ain’t telling the right story.”

The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Your Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:11

To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no light of dawn. Isaiah 8:20

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, because they received the Word with eagerness and searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were true. (Acts 17:11).

And one more:

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. Acts 18:24

Older versions of the Bible say that Apollos was “mighty in the Scriptures.” That reflects a literal rendering of the Greek dynatos from which we get our word dynamite. I like the old phrase “mighty in the Scriptures.” While it is perfectly accurate to translate the Greek as “thorough knowledge of the Scriptures”, it seems to me that “mighty in the Scriptures” packs a better punch.

A hallmark of the evangelical tradition of Christian faith is that its leading lights and influential voices have always been individuals mighty in the Scriptures and eager to produce others mighty in the Scriptures. When the Bible was first translated into English by morning lights of the Reformation John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, both men emphasized that they wanted to get Scripture into the hearts and minds of even common peasants. John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) said, “I will cause that every ploughboy in the fields shall be able to read it.” His successor William Tyndale (1494-1536) took up that same rhetoric, and wrote to some priests who opposed him, “If God spares my life, I will take care that a ploughboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.” It is as though Wycliffe and Tyndale could see 500 years into the future and hear ploughboy Jack Cash saying, “If I’m going to be preacher one day I got to know the Bible front to back. You can’t help nobody if you ain’t telling the right story.”

But even if Wycliffe and Tyndale could not see ahead 500 years, they could certainly look back 1500 years and see what the Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy: “From your childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15).

My parents, thank God, were mighty in the Scriptures. When they were teenagers in the 1930s they were blessed to sit under the teaching of a man who had soaked his brain in the Bible since childhood. Harry Ironside of Moody Church had read through the entire Bible by the age of 10, and then once a year thereafter for the remainder of his life. It showed. His messages were full of Scripture.

Preachers like Harry Ironside remind us of something Charles Spurgeon said about John Bunyan. John Bunyan is best known for writing The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) which for centuries was the world’s number 1 bestseller outside of the Bible. In addition to The Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan wrote many sermons. Spurgeon had this to say about Bunyan:

“Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and...he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress...without continually making us feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God.”

Spurgeon may have been too modest to say that about himself, but I’ll say it for him. I have read a number of his sermons. If you cut Spurgeon he would bleed Bible verses. Whatever you eat eventually finds its way into your bloodstream. So you can only bleed Bible verses (metaphorically speaking) if you eat a lot of Bible. Prominent evangelical preachers of yesteryear – John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon and Harry Ironside etc. feasted on the Word of God. They would be able to say with the prophet Jeremiah, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” (Jeremiah 15:16).

How is the evangelical tradition doing today with regard to knowledge of, and focus upon, Holy Scripture?

What I want to say about that might be best supported by exhaustive, quantitative analysis of evangelical sermons and books and songs. To prove my point I suppose I would need an armload of statistics rigorously researched and fairly presented. But I don’t have that, and I don’t know how to get it. What I do have are anecdotes, vignettes, personal observations and highly subjective impressions. That is what I am going to share with you.

One thing I have seen in evangelical preaching in recent years is an absolute explosion of simple factual mistakes. I am not talking here about interpretation or bad theology or viewpoints that I oppose. I mean just simple, in-your-face, easily discoverable errors that result from carelessness and brutal unfamiliarity with the Bible.

Before I give examples, I should clarify that everybody makes mistakes - especially when speaking off the cuff. I get that. The Bible is a big book, and I don’t know anybody who has memorized all of it. The best expositors have occasional slip-ups. I once heard James Montgomery Boice, who knew the Bible as well as any contemporary, refer to Philemon (the man, not the book) when he clearly meant Onesimus, Philemon’s servant. Oops. One time I saw online a video of D. A. Carson answering a question and he was unable to call to mind the name of the individual whom the Apostle Paul left sick at Miletus. Carson had to appeal to the audience to the supply the name, and of course I’m shouting at the computer screen “Trophimus!” Somebody say ‘Trophimus’!” Well, that happens, and we extend grace to one another because of the frailties and limits of the human brain. I myself once hastily prepared a handout for a Sunday School lesson, printed it up, and somehow did not notice that I had reversed the fates of the Egyptian cupbearer and baker in Genesis chapter 40. I still cringe at that.

But I have in mind mistakes that I consider to be less pardonable than that. Google the name Ed Litton, current head of the Southern Baptist Convention, and you will come across quite a few side-by-side videos of him plagiarizing his sermons. The plagiarism is extreme – often word for word, paragraph for paragraph, even repeating parenthetical asides and puns and telling other people’s stories as though they happened to him. Ed Litton is a liar with zero integrity and the fact that he has a job in the ministry is an indictment of his church and his elders, and the fact that he still leads the Southern Baptist denomination is a sign that our nation’s largest evangelical denomination is an ungodly disgrace and laughingstock.

But that’s beside the point. My topic of the moment is factual errors. One of the sermons that Litton plagiarized was from his predecessor as head of the Southern Baptists, J. D. Greear. In a sermon Greear related the iconic story of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 and said that that man’s servant owed him just one denarius and couldn’t pay it back. Greear emphasized how little one denarius was. But it wasn’t one denarius. It was a hundred denarii (Matthew 18:28). This is not an obscure text. It’s in a Gospel, and it has been preached on and treasured by Christians constantly for generations. I’ll bet you that 12-year-old Jack Cash could have told you it was a hundred denarii, not one. But when Litton plagiarized that sermon, he didn’t even notice the mistake – he repeated it, nearly word for word. It makes you wonder if he had read it at all. He certainly didn’t review it or study it. In sharp contrast to the noble Berean laymen of Acts 17 who searched the Scriptures daily to see if what the Apostle Paul said was true, we have an ignoble clergyman who can’t be bothered to crack open the Bible that he’s preaching from. And the largest evangelical group in America puts him at their head and leaves him there even after his biblical illiteracy and dishonesty have been thoroughly exposed.

Not long ago I saw a list of the largest churches in America. Number 2 on that list, just after Joel Osteen’s House of Mammon in Houston Texas, is an evangelical church, North Point Community Church near Atlanta, Georgia. Andy Stanley is the pastor. When he was speaking of the disciples’ discouragement following Jesus’ crucifixion, Stanley said, “There were no Jesus followers after the crucifixion. And there was no one on planet earth that believed Jesus was the Son of God when they saw him die.” That is an exact quote.

For any of you who have been a Christian for a few years, and have read through the Bible once or twice, and have been to church, what do you think of the statement, “There was no one on planet earth that believed Jesus was the Son of God when they saw him die”? I think at one time it would not have been hard to find a 12-year-old Sunday School student who would say, “Wait a minute, wasn’t there a centurion who saw Jesus die and said this was the Son of God?” Yes, there was. Mark 15:39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (You can see a parallel verse in Matthew 27:54 and Luke 23:47). I am slack-jawed in amazement that one of the best-known preachers at one of the biggest churches in the world can so easily spew out to his congregation the opposite of what the Bible says.

There was a church I was connected to some 10 years ago. When I saw that they got a new pastor a few years ago I decided to listen online to some of his messages and was immediately stunned because his sermons had a steady, constant drizzle of factual errors. For example he said that the Philip who spoke with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 was disciple Philip who spoke to Jesus in John 14. “Same guy!” he said. No it wasn’t. It’s a different Philip. The Philip who baptized the Ethiopian is the deacon Philip whom we first meet in Acts 6. This preacher also said that his favorite Bible story was the one where Gideon had to reduce his army of thousands to just 300 men by picking out just the left-handed men. No. His favorite Bible story said nothing about left-handedness. The army was reduced (at the end) according to the manner in which they drank water (Judges 7:4-7). He said that the 10 sons of Haman who were hanged in Esther chapter 9 all had a particle attached to their names which meant “self” which indicated that they, like their cursed father, were selfish and self-directed rather than God-directed. That is just idiotic. There is a particle connected to each name, but all it does is indicate the word is a direct object.

The pastor said in a Facebook post that he knew Greek and Hebrew, but in a sermon he said liked Greek better because Hebrew had weird things like the fact that it had no word for "cow" or "goat", but substituted phrases like (here he improvised) “that animal over there that stands on four legs and chews grass.” Actually the word in Hebrew for bull is par; cow is para; male goat is tayish and female goat is ez. It is pretty straightforward.

Do I sound like I’m being picky on this poor guy? Well the mistakes get non-trivial pretty quickly. He said repeatedly in his sermons that in the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), there is only one imperative in the Greek, and it is the word “Go”. It’s plural, he said, “Y’all go!”, and everything else - making disciples, baptizing them and teaching them – all fall under the main category of “going”. This understanding informs a church policy that he has called “Go to grow”. That is, don’t wait until you are a mature believer grounded in the Word before you go on a mission trip. No - just go, get out there, and you’ll grow along the way. I regard that as a recipe for missional disaster.

Anyone who has had one semester of Greek or who has paid attention to a minimally competent sermon on the Great Commission will know that the one imperative in it is the phrase “make disciples,” – not “go” or “baptize” or “teach”; those are all subsidiary participles. They’re dependent on the main verb which is “make disciples.” (One word in the Greek: “Disciple!” as a verb)

This pastor has described himself online as “a global teacher, speaker and consultant on leadership, culture and mission.” Something he said that I actually believe is accurate is that his church had made it onto a list of the fastest-growing churches in America. And for me to know that such a church is led by a biblical illiterate brings to mind words famously sung by Jack Cash’s musically gifted younger brother: “I hang my head and cry.”

Now there are two ways for a preacher to avoid making factual mistakes about Scripture – a good way and a bad way. The good way is to read the text, do your homework, and produce results that your humble, prayerful research has yielded. The bad way is one that I’m hearing with increasing frequency, which is, don’t mention the Bible at all. Or refer to it as little as you can.

That is the great scandal in much of what passes for evangelical preaching today. The Bible, in many places, is barely heard.

Again, my evidence is anecdotal, personal, and highly subjective. Here is some of it. You can hardly imagine how many times when I am driving in my car alone and listening to a sermon on WMBI, I find myself yelling at the preacher on the radio, “WHAT IS YOUR TEXT???” That's when I’ve been listening 5, 10, 15 minutes and haven’t heard a Bible verse.

Recently I was listening online to Reformed theologian James White give a critique of one of Andy Stanley’s messages in the form of an open video letter to Stanley. At one point, in complete exasperation, White says to Stanley, “Could you give us a Bible verse once in a while?” And that hits the nail of my complaint against much of evangelical preaching on the head. Could you give us a Bible verse once in a while? In preparation for next week’s message I forced myself to start to listen to one of Stanley’s abominations. 14 minutes into the sermon, and he still hasn’t read his text of Scripture.

Some years ago a friend gave me a written copy of a sermon from a popular associate minister at his church, a teacher who went on to have a prominent ministry elsewhere. I was asked for my response. I was horrified by this message, which was a full-throated exaltation of Sandemanism (also known as easy believism or cheap grace). But that’s not the point I want to make about it. Among the things that leaped off the page at me was the fact that apart from his principle text (one of Jesus’ short parables), the entire sermon referenced no Bible verses at all until the very last page when there was a passing reference to one verse.

Even if you are honestly in no position to evaluate the worthiness of a sermon, let this thought at least suggest itself to you: In a sermon, a preacher should quote more Bible passages than Satan did when trying to tempt Jesus. (For the record, Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 when tempting Jesus in Matthew 4:6). If a preacher can’t reference more than one Bible verse in a 30-minute sermon, you know that something is wrong. Really really wrong.

Just as something is really wrong when a man who is tasked with leading a church seems incapable of bringing Scripture to bear on questions and matters of importance and crises that come before him.

Forty years ago when I was a freshman at Wheaton College, my roommate, Doug Schmidt, told me that he happened to be present at an informal gathering where some student asked a question of college president Hudson Armerding. I don’t know what the question was. But Doug told me that in the course of Armerding’s answer he brought up Scripture after Scripture after Scripture. It just flowed out of him. I wish I could have been there to partake of that delight.

On May 26 of this year, congregants at Willow Creek gathered and passed on to pastors Shawn Williams and Dave Dummit some questions they had written down. One question was, “Why is Bill Hybel’s name rarely mentioned?” You can see online a video of their response. It’s 8 minutes and 47 seconds long. Commentators jumped all over their response because of their failure to acknowledge the victims that Hybels left in his destructive wake.

Maybe you can already guess my other objection to their response. Neither man referenced anything in the Bible when trying to answer the question. It would be good if the malnourished, Scripture-starved sheep of Willow Creek bleated out the James White question: “Could you give us a Bible verse once in a while?”

I took upon myself the liberty of providing a Bible-based answer for Willow Creekans to the provocative question, “Why is Bill Hybel’s name rarely mentioned?” Here it is. (The pastors of Willow Creek are free to use this if they find it. I even give them permission in advance to plagiarize it without attribution. Take it!)

We do not mention Bill Hybels here – except as a byword, and as a warning – because he was a false brother. Jesus said that the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8), but Bill, by anyone’s standards, has been impure in heart for decades. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9), but Bill has refused to confess even when faithfully confronted. Instead he has stuck to his lies and slandered those who spoke the truth. Followers of Jesus Christ cannot do that, because no one who is born of God continues to sin (1 John 3:9). Sexually immoral people (like Bill) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5). Revelation 21:8 says concerning sexually immoral people, liars, and other evildoers that “their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” As your pastors who will one day give an account to God concerning the watch that we have kept over you (Hebrews 13:17), we solemnly warn you that without holiness you will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). So, for the love of God and the sake of your souls, stay away from Bill Hybels and people like him. Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33.) Until he repents or openly acknowledges that he is an unbeliever, you can’t even eat at the same table with him (1 Corinthians 5:11). We don’t want any of you to go to hell. Along with our God, we want all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). We don’t want any of you to arrive with false confidence before the throne of Christ only to hear him say, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). If you are now in the condition that Bill Hybels proved himself to be in, repent, for kingdom of God is near (Matthew 4:17). It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

Those of us who belong to the evangelical tradition already know, we should already know, that we must keep our eyes on the pages of Holy Scripture. Read it, listen to it, learn it, and absorb it into your soul that it might do its work of warning you, comforting you, taking you apart and putting you back together in the image of Jesus Christ. And as that Word does its work in us, so also it is to come out of us in our words and our speech so that by holy viral spread it might accomplish the same work in others. God said, “My word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

The Bible is full of stories of the Bible itself, written to that point, being used to accomplish God’s good work. I think of Nehemiah 8, where Ezra read the book of the law to the returning exiles. The people paid close attention, and other Levites helped to explain the meaning.

Or Luke 24, where Jesus himself, right after his resurrection, conducted a Bible study with two disciples while on the way to Emmaus. Luke 24:27 says, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

Or Acts chapter 2, the first public Christian sermon preached after the resurrection is a message by Peter where he expounds upon three Old Testament texts and relates them to Jesus: Joel 2:28-32; Psalm 16:8-11; Psalm 110:1

Or Acts chapter 8, one of the first gentile conversions takes place where two heads are bowed over a scroll of Isaiah and deacon Philip tells the Ethiopian what the text means and Whom it is about.

I think that in light of the ignorance and casual neglect of Scripture that has multiplied in our day and plagued our churches, it is appropriate to close with Paul’s words to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-3:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires.

Let us pray.

God, by your mercy, awaken and revive your church by means of your Word. May we who preach it be faithful to it, earnest about it, and handle it with reverence, care and awe. And may your people listen and verify with solemn diligence and love. In the name of Jesus your Son, to whom all Scriptures point, amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Evangelicalism in Crisis Part 3: Those Who Want To Be Rich

Greed is bad.

The Bible says that a million times. The 10th commandment has within it a condemnation of greed when it says “You shall not covet.”

Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 5:19-21).

The apostle Paul wrote,

"[I]f we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Timothy 6:8-10).

Greed is so bad that it will keep you from Jesus Christ. And that is bad because you cannot be saved apart from him. The Bible says, in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to humanity whereby we must be saved.”

Greed will keep you from coming to Christ in the first place, or it will turn you away from Christ at the very moment you are about to give your life to him, or it will cause you to wander away from Christ having once professed faith in him, or it will blind you to the horrible truth that you’re just a damned fool.

Here are four Scripture passages that speak to those four conditions that I just mentioned.

(1) Greed will keep you from Christ. The Bible says in Luke 16:14 that the Pharisees loved money. When Jesus said that you cannot serve both God and money, the Pharisees scoffed at him. They were never favorably inclined toward Jesus. They did not like him from the get-go. No man who loves money is favorably inclined toward Jesus. Such a man may have a soft spot in his heart for religion, and he may even love a Jesus of his own imagining. But he cannot love the Jesus who actually exists and who is faithfully presented on the pages of Holy Scripture. Pharisees love money. Pharisees hate Jesus.

(2) Greed will turn you away from Christ at the very moment you are about to give your life to him. That is what happened to the rich young man whose story is told in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18. That man was no Pharisee. He did not hate Jesus or scoff at him. In fact, he trusted Jesus to tell him how to inherit eternal life. For some reason Jesus raised the bar very high for him. In his conversation with the man Jesus said, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21).

The man did not do that because he was rich and he wanted to keep his things. The Bible says he walked away sad. He was ready to become a Christian, and probably would have done so, but greed got in his way.

Before I go on to number 3, I think I should speak to the matter of whether all of us should sell everything we have and give to the poor. My short answer is “no.” I agree with countless Bible teachers who have pointed out that Jesus only said this to one man. Jesus met lots of other rich people and did not make the same demand of them. Even Zacchaeus only pledged to give half of his stuff to the poor, and Jesus did not say, “Where’s the other half?” (Luke 19:8-10).

I think it is best to note that in this case, Jesus was laying his finger directly upon that man’s besetting sin. That man’s sin was greed, and it had to go. We may see rough parallels in Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus in John 3 and the woman at the well in John 4. The sin of the woman at the well was not greed. It was promiscuity. Jesus said to her (and only to her), “Go call your husband.” That dagger of a sentence exposed her loose lifestyle. But a chapter earlier Jesus had not said to Nicodemus, “Go call your wife.” If Jesus had said that, I suppose Nicodemus would have shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ok, I’ll go call my wife.” That was not an area of embarrassment for him. He would not have needed to respond with an evasive deception like “I don’t have a wife.” It seems that Nicodemus’s besetting sin was neither greed nor promiscuity but rather the greatest, most fundamental sin of all: pride. So Jesus said to him, the great teacher of Israel (I paraphrase), “You have to start all over again like a newborn baby. You can’t even see the kingdom of God until you do.”

Jesus had the annoying habit of calling people to repentance in the area where they most needed it and where they were perhaps least willing to give it.

(3) Greed will cause you to wander from Christ even though you once professed faith in him. The apostle Paul said that himself in the passage I quoted earlier from 1 Timothy 6:10 where he says, “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Jesus had earlier warned that the lure of riches would eventually draw some followers away from him. In the parable of the seed and the sower, the weeds that choke out a promising plant are identified as “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19). Someone who probably fit in that category was Demas. I don’t think we can be 100 percent sure, because we don’t have all the details, but 2 Timothy 4:10 suggests this kind of falling away when it says, “Demas, because he loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” It sounds like Demas preferred riches to the rigors of serving Christ.

(4) Greed can blind you to the horrible truth that you’re just a damned fool. In Luke 12, Jesus tells the story of a man who has done very well for himself financially. He has done so well that it looks like he can take an early retirement and spend the rest of his days just enjoying life. He makes plans to build bigger storage facilities for all his stuff, and then says to himself, “You have plenty laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.”

For many people, that sounds like the American dream. Work only as long as you need to and then spend the rest of your days enjoying your stuff. But Jesus concludes that story by saying, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” And then Jesus says, “This is how it will be for everyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

That story hits too close to home for me. Earlier this week I was talking to my wife about the prospect of retirement. I am 58, and anticipating the day - perhaps 8 and a half years from now - when I can retire from my labor job in a chemical plant. And I think it is no sin to yearn for rest. But it is a sin to be self-indulgent - to think only in terms of one’s things and how one might best enjoy them at leisure, and to give no thought to how our resources might best be used for the glory of God and the benefit of people. The truth is, I may not have 8 and half years. Or I may have a lot more than that. But on whatever day God says to me, “Paul, this night your life will be demanded from you,” I don’t want him to preface that announcement with the words, “You fool.”

In order not to be fools, we must not be greedy. We must give with wise generosity, for the Bible says, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). We must not be self-indulgent, because Jesus sternly warned people not to store up things for themselves. And we must not even want to be rich, because the apostle Paul said those who want to be rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. And Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). No devout soul who takes those words seriously would ever want to be rich. What sane individual would want to make it harder to get into heaven? What rational person would want to fall into temptation and a trap that could drown him in destruction and perdition?

Now, what I have just shared with you is, in my mind, a very straightforward, pedestrian, old-hat Christian presentation on the subject of greed and its danger to the soul. I do not think that I have tried to provoke you with any extreme language or hyperbole. My goal here has been to set forth very simply, in measured tones, what the Bible says about greed.

And this leads me to a disturbing question to contemplate. For those of you who have some familiarity with mainstream evangelical preaching today – how often have you heard a condemnation of greed or a warning about greed along the lines of what I have just shared?

I have not heard it at all in recent years. Zero. And for what it’s worth, I do listen to sermons quite a bit. That’s what I do. Nearly every day I listen to at least parts of several contemporary evangelical sermons. There are gazillions of them online, and they’re also on Christian radio, and I listen to those when I’m driving. In today’s evangelical world, exhortations about and warnings against greed are nonexistent.

While condemnations of greed are absent, exhortations to give are plentiful. (Those two are not the same, of course.) I hear exhortations to give every day. In fact, there are preachers on evangelical Christian radio who, at end of every sermon, give a little presentation where they ask for money. Some don’t even wait for the end of the sermon. Some of them now have a commercial break in the middle of the sermon where they promote their ministry, hawk sales of their book, and ask you to give generously. Or, they offer you something free to get you on their mailing list. Such mailing lists, you should know, are lucrative cash cows for those who know how to exploit them.

I have a word of counsel for my fellow evangelicals. Don’t give money to millionaires. That’s stupid. And when I say that, I don’t even have in mind those obvious, outrageous frauds who masquerade as Christians. You know the type: Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Steven Furtick of Elevation Church, Brian Houston of Hillsong. Those people live cartoonishly lavish lifestyles, and their intoxication with greed is open, unapologized for, and actively promoted. Brian Houston, to pick one example, actually wrote a book with the title You Need More Money. On YouTube you can find a clip of him saying, “There is no one person in this building who doesn’t need more money. And if you say, ‘Well I don’t need more money,’ then I would say, ‘You have a very poor outlook on life.’” That is straight from the mouth of antichrist.

Frauds like the Hillsong founder Brian Houston - who clearly believed that St. Paul had a poor outlook on life for being content and not wanting more money - are beyond the fringe of the category of evangelical that I have in mind this morning. Greedy villains like Brian Houston and Joel Osteen will not be invited any time soon to speak at Moody’s Founders’ Week, or address the student body at Wheaton College, or serve as chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary, or join Keith and Kristyn Getty on the stage of a “Sing!” concert. Anyone who has a minimal familiarity with the Bible and a minimal familiarity with the teachings and lifestyles of Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Brian Houston, etc., will see very quickly that those people have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

Again, my concern strikes much closer to home. Because I am speaking as an evangelical Christian to other evangelical Christians.

So here is an example of the kind of thing that concerns me. In 2010, I heard, a few months apart, a couple sermons by two well-known mainstream evangelical preachers. These were not TV charlatans but serious, influential expositors of the Word. Both sermons disturbed me, and I wrote essays at the time that referenced them. One preacher gave as a sermon illustration an incident where he said he really wanted to see a Monday night football game in person at Lambeau Field. Tickets were impossible to get at face value, so he instructed his son to go online and bid whatever exorbitant sum was necessary to get 12 tickets. He paid the ungodly price to get those tickets, and then a wealthy parishioner gave him 6 more, and the preacher concluded those were the tickets God wanted him to have. What you have there are thousands upon thousands of dollars, all derived ultimately from the sacrificial tithes of God’s people, to see a stupid football game. Of course there were a lot more shenanigans where that came from. Some years earlier that pastor had bought a house for 2 million dollars. He also had a serious gambling problem and he was known for giving away Harley Davidson motorcycles and automobiles to buddies like Ed Stetzer.

The other sermon I heard that year was by a younger preacher who boasted of having 40 pairs of shoes, and said his wife had more than that. He spoke contemptuously of modestly-priced wine and said he would only drink the premium stuff. Again, there was more, but I’ll stop there. You get the idea. He said these things without any remorse, repentance or shame - just as matters of fact.

The first preacher was the since-utterly-disgraced James MacDonald and the second preacher was the since-utterly-disgraced Mark Driscoll. Eleven years later we all know how evil these men are now that their jaw-dropping depravity in multiple areas has been unveiled for the world to see. All their former elders have at long last found the courage to denounce them. And that’s good. But my question is, “How did these men of such transparent, demonic greed flourish for so long in a community of people that supposedly value the Bible, and read it, and love the Lord Jesus Christ?” That is incomprehensible to me. How did MacDonald keep his radio show on WMBI? How did he get invited to speak to Bible students at Moody and to seminary students at Trinity? How did that fiend Mark Driscoll manage to plant his name, face and influence on every nook and cranny of the evangelical world? Part of the answer is that evangelicals of influence stopped caring about, identifying, denouncing, and repenting of greed. Gargantuan self-gorging greed is just out there all the time in plain sight, and we as a community have winked at it and let it slouch on by.

And we’re still doing that. It is part of the ongoing crisis in evangelicalism today. For example: David Jeremiah is still on evangelical Christian radio. Some years ago his chief financial officer, George Hale, resigned in protest and disgust over the unethical, deceptive practices Jeremiah was using to artificially inflate numbers on his book sales. Jeremiah doesn’t even write his own books – he employs ghostwriters. But with his celebrated name on the covers of these books, he was able to get a 3 million dollar check from Faith Words, a Nashville-based publisher, and soon after that, in January of 2010, he bought a 2 million dollar condominium in a resort community on Coronado Island.

Of course that’s wrong, of course that is indicative of blatant, self-indulgent, godless greed. But how can the megachurch evangelical preachers of our day condemn such a vice when so many of them are awash in it themselves?

Thank God there are exceptions to the rule of greed that has so poisoned our evangelical culture. I’ll mention two that I know about, though I’m sure there are others.

John Piper could be very rich and live very lavishly if he wanted to. He need only say the word. The royalties on his books would have him set for life. But for years Piper has kept his relatively modest house in a troubled neighborhood in Minneapolis where the syringes of drug addicts litter his doorstep. It is as though there is a golden apple before his eyes, and yet for the love of Christ and fear of God he refuses to lay hold of it. He values as something far greater his treasure in heaven, and refuses to forfeit that for the sake of earthly comfort. When his elders wanted to raise his salary beyond what he knew he needed, he refused. They tried to pressure him with the argument that it would throw off the salary structure of the whole staff, because of course they would have to be paid less than the senior pastor, and that wouldn’t be enough for them. Piper was mystified by that argument and said, “Where is it written that the senior pastor has to be the highest paid? Why should that be case? Just pay them what you need to pay them. If it’s more than what I get, who cares?”

I’m so thankful to God that there are some people who get it.

Someone of a previous generation who got it was C. S. Lewis. The converted atheist and greatest mind of his generation actually had trouble comprehending some things that other people seem to manage without difficulty. Algebra was beyond him. He was never able to learn how to drive a car. And he had no knack for understanding money management. In fact, his first publisher ripped him off royally and Lewis had no clue. Lewis didn’t really understand money, he just knew that as a Christian he had to be generous with the money that came his way.

I have to stick in a parenthetical note here. When I said that he was the greatest mind of his generation, it will seem that I immediately contradicted myself by referring to areas where he was, shall we say, special. Lest that remain as the dominant impression, please let me encourage you to read just the first six chapters of his book Miracles. Serious engagement with that book alone will have you staring open-jawed at the page and wondering why you never realized till that moment that you were an utter simpleton.

But I digress. When the money came rolling in from Lewis’s bestselling books, he just gave it away to widows and orphans and other needy people. He actually gave way too much of it, because he didn’t know he still had to pay taxes on it as income. Once he got back on track financially from having given his way into tax debt, he established a charitable fund with the help of a lawyer friend, Owen Barfield, and for the remainder of his days he never saw most of the royalties from his books because two-thirds of it went directly to charity.

And no, he did not buy a two million dollar condo in a resort community. In fact, the house he lived in near Oxford didn’t even have central heat. It was cold in the winter. He felt he had to warn an incoming American guest, Walter Hooper, that the accommodations he could offer would probably be a lot less comfortable than what an American would be used to.

Among the many gems that Lewis left behind is this statement concerning how much we, as Christians, should give. It is so encouraging to know that he not only wrote this, but he lived by it. He wrote:

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

Amen. Let us pray.

Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread. Wait a minute. Scratch that, God. You already gave me my daily bread. And tomorrow’s bread too, and the day after that. They’re in my refrigerator and freezer and cupboards at home. So let me start again. Thank you God for the overabounding material blessings that I, a rich spoiled brat, take for granted as an entitlement and mostly don’t even notice. Deliver me from the greed that rules my culture and renders me senseless to the ways in which, perhaps, my own heart has been taken captive to it. Thank you for the example of saints like Paul who conquered greed and enjoyed contentment in the confines of a prison cell. Teach me to live with that generosity of spirit so that when the moment comes for you to say that my life is demanded of me, you will not call me the fool that I am by nature, but the child and servant that I have become by grace. In Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Evangelicalism in Crisis Part 2: My Glory I Will Not Give to Another

The Bible says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” It says that frequently. With some variation in wording, it says that in Proverbs 3:34, Proverbs 138:6, Matthew 23:12, Luke 1:51-52, James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

God’s opposition to pride may be observed in the lives of three kings and one apostle. The pagan king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, despite being solemnly warned one year earlier, swelled up with pride and said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:10). Instantly God judged him with a humiliating and degrading condition that rendered all kingly functions impossible for seven years.

More than 600 years later, another king, Herod Agrippa I, received with approval accolades from people who shouted, “The voice of a god and not a man!” The Bible says, “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23).

Nebuchadnezzar and Herod Agrippa were bad men to begin with, but could a good king succumb to pride? We know of at least one who did. Hezekiah was one of the best kings that Israel or Judah ever had. But listen to these sad words in 2 Chronicles 32:25: “Hezekiah’s heart became proud and he did not respond to the kindness shown him; therefore the LORD’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem.” Thankfully that grievous development gave way to grace in the next verse which says, “Then Hezekiah repented of the pride of his heart, as did the people of Jerusalem; therefore the LORD’s wrath did not come on them during the days of Hezekiah.” Even so, the damage wrought by good King Hezekiah’s pride turned out to be extensive and horrific beyond anyone’s imagination.

Pride is so bad and so dangerous that God allowed an apostle to be tormented by the devil just to keep pride at bay. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 the apostle Paul wrote, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” Twice Paul says in that verse: “to keep me from becoming conceited” as though to remind himself that it was far more important that his pride be kept in check than that he should experience deliverance, comfort, fulfillment, or success.

Pride has always been regarded by Christian teachers as the greatest sin. The unanimity on that goes back centuries. In C. S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity he has a chapter titled “The Great Sin” where he writes this:

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

Lewis was right. I have read that Augustine and Aquinas also identified Pride as the essence of all sin. There is a good reason why Pride is mentioned first among the seven deadly sins.

A parenthetical note: this universal Christian consensus about Pride being the great sin has been challenged and denied in just these past few years by – of all people! – evangelicals. Even C. S.-Lewis-loving evangelicals. About seven years ago I was part of a team tasked with preaching through the book, The Sacrament of Evangelism by Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie. There is much good in this book. But one of the things that is not so good is that in chapter 6 the authors take pains to reject the Christian tradition and received wisdom that pride is the greatest sin. They see pride as a consequence of a deeper, more fundamental sin which they call “our unwillingness to receive God’s love.”

That rhetoric about “not receiving God’s love” has gripped the evangelical mind in recent years and diffused its influence through our sermons and books and training of young Christians. I hear it a lot, for example, on Christian radio or in Christian college chapel services. In such settings you will hear things like, “Our biggest problem is that we don’t understand how much God loves us, and we just really need to learn how to appreciate and receive his love.” I plan to return to this point in my fifth and final message in this series which I have titled “Evangelicalism and the Fundamental Misdiagnosis of the Human Condition.” But for now I will just state – crudely, baldly, and with all the conviction that my meager authority can muster – that Augustine and Aquinas and C. S. Lewis and a million other wise teachers through the centuries had it right in the first place. Pride is the great sin.

And, in my judgment, modern popular western evangelicalism has fueled pride, rewarded its manifestations among our key leaders, and failed to see (much less discipline) even the least subtle, most egregious expressions of it. The result has been an avalanche of corruption and scandal and disaster in the evangelical world that has put Christianity in a bad light and given opponents of the faith a reason to rejoice.

Let me tell you about an experience I had in 1985 that became pivotal for me in my understanding of some of these issues. I happened to spend two months in southern California. My fiancé and I went to a big church one Sunday morning. I scarcely remember anything about the service. The regular preacher was out of town. Same thing the next week. The third Sunday, an odd thing happened. When we pulled into the parking lot, it was so full of cars that we had to park a good distance away. I thought that was strange – it wasn’t Easter or Christmas. Then as we joined the throng of people going in we saw that the doors between the narthex and the sanctuary were closed. They had been open the previous two weeks and you could just walk right in. But now there were designated individuals managing crowd control, letting in groups of people at intervals so that the numbers would not overwhelm.

I was puzzled until suddenly a thought jumped into my head: “Oh - I bet Chuck Swindoll is back from vacation.” I was right. The crowd had materialized because people were there to hear their celebrity pastor. An alarmingly high percentage of that congregation had determined in their hearts that God was not worthy of their worship on a Sunday morning unless Chuck was preaching. I know that they would not have put it in those terms, but I am deliberately putting it in those offensive, cynical terms in order to awaken and wound the consciences of those who have succumbed to a shallow, celebrity-driven Christianity. The feeling of disgust that I had that Sunday morning has not diminished in 36 years. We who love Jesus Christ and who are eternally grateful for his death and resurrection on our behalf gather to worship him, remember him, and learn from him in the company of brothers and sisters in the faith who bear our burdens and whose burdens we bear. We do not go to church to hear an inspiring talk from a Christian star. That is an abomination.

I believe that the megachurch model that has come to dominate so much of evangelicalism in the past few decades has nourished that abomination. It has inflated the egos of alpha males in the pulpits of such places, and has attracted new generations of men who thirst for that acclaim. These are ambitious men who are not so much willing to lay down their lives in painful self-sacrifice and anonymity in obscure places, taking up their crosses to follow Christ, but who want, more than anything, to be the next Chuck Swindoll.

Here is an example of how that dynamic begins, festers, and ends in horror. In 2017, Joshua Harris gave a TED talk in which he said, “I could take you to the exact spot in my parents’ living room in Gresham Oregon where I knelt down and I prayed this prayer: “God, let me write a book that will change the world.”

That’s the kind of prayer that C. S. Lewis nailed to the wall of humanity’s great sin when he quoted the Roman poet Juvenal who spoke of “Enormous prayers which heaven in anger grants.”

Joshua Harris did not pray for the glory of God but for the glory of himself. It did not even seem to matter to him what his book would be about – just something, some topic, whatever – just something that would sell unbelievably well and strike its influence like a thunderbolt across the land, which, of course, could not help but redound to Harris’s honor and fame. He was 20 years old.

He got his wish. In 1997 he wrote the national number 1 bestseller “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” It was a very well-timed book that scratched the itch of Christian purity culture and skyrocketed him to evangelical fame. I never read the book myself for the simple reason that the title struck me as asinine. I mean, I am against fornication and adultery - but what’s wrong with dating? I think dating is just great.

Having been catapulted into evangelical fame, Harris at the age of 28 was handpicked by C. J. Mahaney to succeed him as lead pastor of Covenant Life Church in Maryland. Covenant Life was a megachurch with 20 full-time pastors and 30 full-time staff members. And just like Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel that I mentioned last week, Covenant Life sent out its tentacles of corruption in all directions through its international organization Sovereign Grace Ministries. Sovereign Grace Ministries has since imploded under the scandals of rampant, unchecked, undisciplined sexual abuse.

But that’s another story. Here I’m just focusing on Harris. The ambitious young Joshua Harris was handed this influential evangelical empire in September 2004. Fast-forward to 2019, Harris announced that he was no longer a Christian. Of course he dissolved his marriage – apostates almost always do that. And now that he is out of the ministry, Harris has not gone out to get a regular job (I can testify that they are hiring over at Flavorchem - I’d be willing to put in a word for him), but rather he seeks to monetize his loss of faith just as he once monetized his embrace of it. For a hefty fee he’s willing to coach you through the ins and outs of rejecting Christ.

The Harris saga began not with the glory of God but with barely concealed diabolical pride, and now it ends with a middle finger thrust openly into the face of God for everyone to see. And what drives me nuts is the fact that so many of my fellow evangelical brothers and sisters have gotten sucked into these maelstroms of one man’s ambition and taken for a ride only to be left with bitter disappointment and disillusionment, wondering, “Gee, how did that happen?”

Well, among other things, we the evangelical public have been guilty of stoking pride-driven Christian celebrityism and its partner in crime megachurchianity. And perhaps one area where I might be able to render some small service to my evangelical brothers and sisters is to indicate a cluster of red flags and warning signs that keeps getting ignored.

Before going on to that, though, I believe I would be negligent in my duty as a steward of the Word of God if I did not now give you some relevant Scriptures that speak to the apostasy of men like Joshua Harris.

Hebrews 6:4-6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Hebrews 10:26-31:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

2 Peter 2:20-22:

If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A pig that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”

The word of the Lord.

Joshua Harris was just one of many who found within contemporary evangelicalism a structure that was well-suited - designed in advance, so to speak, to satisfy the ambition of glory-seeking charismatic individuals. When we fan the flames of Christian celebrityism, when we file by the hundreds into stadium-like churches only if the star performer is there, then we are at least in part to blame for creating monsters. Or we share the guilt of attracting men who already are monsters but who have managed, for the time being, to cloak their true nature in the garb of humanity.

Consider for a moment whether celebrities in the secular realm ever tend to be virtuous. They’re not. Fame and power drag in their wake a sense of entitlement. Celebrityism creates a mindset that says, “I am so accomplished and adored that I deserve to have things that please me.” For men, if I may speak with grotesque bluntness, that usually includes a harem of some sort. How many men of fame – be they actors, sports figures, rock stars or politicians – how many of them are morally chaste? Hardly any. And now, among Christian celebrities, the occurrence of sexual transgression has become so pervasive that it hardly shocks us anymore.

And there is something else that I have noticed now among Christian A-list celebrities who have not fallen sexually, at least as far as it is known publicly. An alarming number of them seem to find ways of signaling to us that women find them irresistible. Of course, they do somehow manage to beat them off with a stick, but, my oh my, random women sure do throw themselves at them a lot.

Mark Driscoll, whose open ambition was to have the biggest church in the world (and was well on the way to achieving it till his own elders sickened of him and insisted that he step down), claimed that while he was serving holy communion women would stick a note in his pocket, saying “Pastor Mark, you look tired, let me come over and help you. No one else has to know about this. It can just be between us.” James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family (sorry, DOCTOR James Dobson – he always insisted on being called Dr.) claimed that once after he had had a fight with his wife he went for a drive, and some woman in a car next to him at stop light gave him the eye, smiled, and then pulled off down a side road as though beckoning him to follow. Of course, noble Dr. Dobson resisted, and kept driving on the straight and narrow highway. (Incidentally, I do not believe either Driscoll’s or Dobson’s story.) Chuck Swindoll tells the story of getting into an elevator at a hotel where two women got on and indicated that they would get off at whatever floor he got off on. Once again, our hero escaped the clutches of a foul temptress who could barely keep her hands off him (in this case, TWO foul temptresses). I heard Tony Evans tell of the time when a woman noticed his wedding ring and said to another woman “Aww, he’s married!” He smiled and said, “What can I say?” Even if that happened, a humble man of God cannot tell that story. That’s something you bury in the sea of forgetfulness. Then there’s Paul Tripp. He founded a ministry with a unique, catchy name: “Paul Tripp Ministries.” (I’ll get back to that.) In a promotional video for one of his books, he tells how, dissatisfied with his wife’s lack of appreciation for him, he said to her, “95% of the women in this congregation would be happy to be married to me.” She retorted, “Count me among the 5%”. Even granted that he told the story in humorous self-deprecation, I still think, how much self-regard must a man ingest before he can allow himself to think that thought?

Our cult of megachurch celebrityism attracts and breeds the kind of man who will insist on being addressed with an honorific, or who will name a ministry after himself, and who will casually assume that women all over the world are eager to launch themselves at him.

If I were to assemble the red flags indicative of pride and gather them into a single container labeled with one word, I would pick the word “Name.” Watch for the name. Pay attention to whose name is prominent.

A number of years ago WMBI had a short daily feature, just a minute or so, that opened with these words: “This is George Barna of the Barna Research Group with The Barna Report.’” That man was able to get his name out on to the airwaves three times in the space of three seconds. His books would feature full-length pictures of himself. Many years ago when I was pastoring a church I got a brochure in the mail that featured his materials. I actually counted the number of times the name “Barna” appeared. It was dozens, but, significantly, the name of Jesus did not appear.

Listen: you cannot put your own name forward when you represent Jesus Christ. I will repeat that for emphasis’ sake. You cannot put your own name forward when you represent Jesus Christ.

Last week I referred to a lying, sexually abusive fake Christian scoundrel from hell by the name of Ravi Zacharias. Before Ravi’s patterns of lies had been revealed, before his sexually abusive nature had been revealed, before it became known that he had pressured his brother’s girlfriend to get an abortion – before all that, he founded an institute. Do you know what he named it? "The Zacharias Institute." He also founded a ministry. He called that "Ravi Zacharias International Ministries". My point here is that his glory-seeking self-aggrandizement was right out there in the open the whole time, and we the evangelical public didn’t see it, pushed past it, apparently didn’t think it was a big deal. It was a big deal. You cannot name a Christian ministry after yourself.

Before going further with that I should make a careful distinction. If you own a business upon which your livelihood depends and to which your reputation is attached, it is completely appropriate that you stamp your name on that. If your name is Schwartz and you own a bakery, by all means call it “Schwartz Bakery.” Your name will rise or fall on the quality of your cakes, and that is as it should be. Christian journalist Julie Roys has no bigger fans than my wife and me, and her site is called “The Roys Report.” That’s fine – that’s her livelihood, her business, and the nature of her reporting and opinion pieces demands that it not be anonymous. Her name should be on that.

But when it comes to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, and caring for souls, and training disciples – though someone may earn a living through that, it is never a business. We who are called to such work are not proprietary owners of it. We don’t even rise to the level of "local franchise owner" like someone who controls a Burger King or Subway. The Bible’s term for us is “steward”. In 1 Corinthians 4:1, Paul writes, “This is how we should be regarded, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” A steward is just a manager, or maybe only a servant. We stewards do not get to stamp our name on ministry. We hide, we must hide behind the cross and ensure that the name of Christ be paramount. Colossians 3:17: "Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus." John 3:30: "He must become greater; I must become less."

Paul Tripp and Ravi Zacharias are not the only Christian celebrities who have dared to name ministries after themselves. Locally we have "Ron Zappia Ministries" out of Highpoint Church in Naperville. Weekdays at 6PM on WMBI you can listen to J. D. Greear of "J. D. Greear Ministries." He is the former president of the Southern Baptist Denomination, which in my mind is the most corrupt denomination in the U.S.

Although not everything that Paul Tripp and Ron Zappia and J. D. Greear say is wrong, let me warn you - you are skating on thin ice, you are swimming in treacherous waters, if you go learn your biblical wisdom from men who are so foolish, so egotistical, so alien to the spirit of Christ and blind to what the Bible teaches that they would name a ministry after themselves! It is simply outrageous. But now I will tell you something even more outrageous.

There have multiplied in our day celebrity Christian megachurch men who have stamped their names not just on a ministry but on the Bible itself! I regard that as sacrilege. This is the Holy Word of God. It is good that we have study Bibles with copious notes and cross references that help us understand it better and learn how to apply it. But It is not good that proud men have seen to it that their names will be on bold display every time a humble Christian opens the Word of God. Today we have the John MacArthur Study Bible. The David Jeremiah Study Bible. The Chuck Swindoll Study Bible. And the Tony Evans Study Bible.

That is not right. You can write about the Bible and seek to unfold its truths to a spiritually needy church, but you can’t have your name printed on the cover. How dare any man contaminate Holy Scripture by linking it so tightly to his own unholy name. And how can the Christian evangelical public support that? It is shameful.

In 1769 a deeply troubled poet, William Cowper, wrote a wonderful hymn, Oh For A Closer Walk With God. That hymn contains the words, “The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, help me to tear it from Thy throne and worship only Thee." For some of us, the dearest idol we have known is our own miserable self. The sooner we see that and repent of it the better.

I conclude with a couple lines from another hymn, one I got to sing many times during my college days. The hymn is framed as a petition, a wish. The opening stanza is:

May the mind of Christ my Savior
Live in me from day to day
By his love and power controlling
All I do and say.

And then it concludes like this:

May his beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.

A Christian’s great joy is not to be remembered, upheld and valued by others, but rather to be a means by which others remember, uphold and value Jesus Christ. And for that to happen most effectively, we, the servants and stewards, must get out of the way. Let us pray.

God, since you oppose the proud, deliver us from pride. Awaken us to its presence within us and root it out by force if necessary. Thank you for those thorns of pain amd humiliation and incapacity by which our pride is gouged out and kept from exerting its power to alienate us from you and your holy Son Jesus Christ. Humble our hearts so that we might receive your grace, and rejoice to give you glory forever. Amen.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Evangelicalism in Crisis Part 1: Corrupt Sons Of Hell Leading The Flock

I have been asked to teach a 5-part series on the theme “Evangelicalism in Crisis.” Your pastor, Gordon Yee, and I, along with many others, are agreed that evangelicalism is in crisis. That is, evangelicalism, as represented in the Western World in our largest churches, denominations, colleges, institutions, radio stations, books, and music is in a state of corruption so awful and decay so putrid that it is often unrecognizable as Christianity, and is in desperate need of repentance, revival and renewal. That is, things are not just bad in our evangelical neck of the woods - they’re really really really bad. They’re 1517 bad – referring to the year that Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, an act that helped spark the Protestant Reformation. Things are “Jesus-cleansing-the-temple” bad, referring to that event where Jesus overturned the tables of moneychangers in the temple in Jerusalem, and prophesied that that great structure would be taken apart stone by stone - as indeed happened about 37 years later.

While I must speak forthrightly about the sins and errors that plague our community of faith, I have misgivings about doing this series. I will begin by communicating three of those misgivings.

Misgiving number 1. I am not qualified to do this. I am neither professor, historian nor theologian. I have written no books. I have never pastored a large church or run a large organization. I work a day job as an unskilled laborer. As for my ministry background, I tried but failed to plant a church. As a pastor I failed to keep two dying churches from folding. Before that, as a missionary linguist I failed to persuade an indigenous group to allow me to translate the Bible into their language. I acknowledge my laughably inadequate qualifications for taking on so ambitious a project. I am waddling up to a high-jump bar whose height should only be attempted by a C. S. Lewis, a Carl F. H. Henry, a John Stott, a James Montgomery Boice, or a D. A. Carson. But they were all dead, or unavailable, so here I am.

Misgiving number 2. In this series I must expose, judge and condemn that which so richly deserves exposure, judgment and condemnation. But there is danger in that. It is easy to condemn. It is even agreeable. Condemnation is an addictive, beguiling drug. When we condemn we are energized, and we feel good about ourselves because we know we’re not as bad as those people.

The Pharisees of the Bible were so good at condemning that they judged Jesus Christ while justifying themselves. I don’t want to be a Pharisee, and I don’t want to train you to be a Pharisee. So I urge that we keep before us those Scriptures that humble, convict, and terrify. 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Romans 2:1,3: “[I]n passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things... Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” James 3:1: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.” Luke 6:46: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but don’t do what I say?”

If Jesus asked me that question, “Paul, why don’t you do what I say?” I don’t know how I would answer. I know I could not respond, “But it’s not true! I always do what you say!” Someday soon – could be today, could be 15 years from now, I will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. I will look Jesus in the eye – if I dare raise my head to meet his gaze. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he had done in the body, whether good or evil.” I believe that, and it unsettles me. We ought never dismiss that unease insofar as it spurs us to holiness and does not cripple us in despair. In this series I know that I will be tempted, and I will tempt you, to indulge the genial task of condemning other people’s sins while neglecting the more painful and necessary task of repenting of our own.

Misgiving number 3. I understand that this lament over the current state of things could be preached – and indeed has been preached – in every generation.

In 1988, in the wake of multiple televangelist scandals, Pastor Warren Wiersbe wrote a book called “The Integrity Crisis”. The subtitle was, A blemished church struggles with accountability, morality, and lifestyles of its leaders and laity. That was 33 years ago.

And before any of the televangelist scandals broke, Francis Schaeffer had already written a book published in 1984 called “The Great Evangelical Disaster” – a similar diatribe about how bad things were.

In 1959, Martyn Lloyd Jones preached a series of messages on the factors that were hindering and subverting revival in his day.

In 1887 and 1888 there was the famous Downgrade Controversy that featured rhetorical warning bells sounded by none other than Charles Spurgeon, the best-known and most gifted preacher of the time. (Perhaps of all time). He wrote: “No lover of the gospel can conceal from himself the fact that the days are evil…[O]ur solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward.”

More examples could be added to that list going further back in history, but I will stop there. The fact that preachers have been lamenting the current state of things forever could call into question the legitimacy and urgency of this lament in 2021. In my mind I can see the eye-roll, I can hear the weary sigh of some historically informed Christian who says, “Oh no, not that again. Not that ‘Everything’s-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket!’ line again. We’ve heard that too many times before.”

I will come back to this third misgiving and provide my answer to it in about 20 minutes before I conclude my message.

But first, in order to show why I think things are especially bad, let me go through a brief list of some prominent evangelical leaders and outline their scandalous behavior over the past 15 years.

Number 1: Ted Haggard. Ted Haggard was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He had a church of 14,000 people that he founded from scratch. He was politically influential and had the ear of George W. Bush. Reportedly he communicated with the White House every Monday morning. In 2006 it was revealed that he had a three-year paid relationship with a male prostitute, Mike Jones, with whom he used methamphetamines. When first outed for this behavior Ted Haggard lied, repeatedly, denying everything - until the evidence became irrefutable. Later it was also revealed that he had sexually harassed a male volunteer to whom he said, “You know what, you can become a man of God, and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.” For Ted Haggard, a little bit of fun on the side was godless, perverse, unwelcome sexual harassment.

Number 2: Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels, one of the founders of Willow Creek Church, is far and away the most influential evangelical of the past 50 years. No one else is remotely close to Hybels in terms of impact on evangelical culture and practice in the past half century. This influence was deliberate, and exercised through his megachurch, satellite churches, association of churches, and the Global Leadership Summit. It is impossible to calculate how many people over the past few decades left good churches to go to Willow Creek or to one of its satellites, just as it is impossible to calculate how many churches became or tried to become Willow Creek clones. Heaven knows how many pastors succumbed to it, or how many were told by their congregants, “Let’s do it the Willow Creek way!”

In 2018 Bill Hybels was revealed as a sexual predator. At least 10 women testified against him, demonstrating a pattern of life that went back decades. In response, he denied everything and lied and lied and lied, slandering his victims, and to this day has shown no repentance or remorse. Shortly after his disgraced departure from Willow Creek, his friend and the theological kingpin of that church, Dr Gilbert Bilezikian, was also shown to be a pervert with a pattern of preying on women that went back decades. Less well-known is the name Dave Holmbo. He was the other co-founder of Willow Creek way back in the 1970s. He was forced into resignation back then because of sexual immorality.

The most influential church of our generation, the infamous Willow Creek that sucked a thousand evangelical churches into its black hole nightmare of fake Christianity was founded not upon the rock that is Jesus Christ, but upon the ambitious megalomania of three adulterous sons of hell.

Please let that sink in. For the love of God let that sink in.

Number 3: James MacDonald. MacDonald had the other megachurch mega-phenomenon in the Chicago area, Harvest Bible Chapel with all its affiliates. MacDonald had a daily radio program on WMBI, “Walk in the Word”, and was a regularly featured speaker at conferences and seminaries and events like Moody’s Founders Week. He was also the focal point for gathering around himself other megachurch pastors to mentor them, influence them and network with them.

A friend of mine from seminary worked with James MacDonald just over 10 years ago. I’m not sure I am at liberty to mention my friend’s name. I’ll call him John. John witnessed firsthand how utterly malicious, dishonest and lascivious James MacDonald was in his daily interactions with people. And it was no secret among those who knew him. John said, in shock, to one of the elders at the time, “James is not a spiritual man!” and the elder responded, “We all know that.” John told me that he literally came to fear for his life. At one point John told his wife, “Listen, I am not depressed, I am not suicidal. If anything happens to me, insist upon an investigation. Because I think James might try to have me killed and make it look like an accident or suicide.” She told him to write that down. They wrote it down, signed and dated it and sent it to themselves certified mail to be opened in case of his violent death. They still have the letter.

Does my friend John sound paranoid to you? I mean – come on, really? Could one of the most prominent evangelical preachers in America with a worldwide influence over evangelical laity and other evangelical megachurch pastors really be an assassin at heart?

Around the time that MacDonald was finally and abruptly fired by his own elders in 2019 for across-the-board wickedness that even they had to acknowledge, Chicago radio host Mancow Mueller revealed that twice in the preceding year MacDonald had talked to him about hiring a hitman. Mancow thought that MacDonald was joking, but then came to realize, oh no, he was serious. Then, independently of those chilling encounters, MacDonald’s former bodyguard, Manny Bucur, revealed that in 2015 MacDonald offered to pay him to murder his ex son-in-law Tony Groves. According to Bucur, MacDonald offered to help dispose of the body. These are all mutually independent attestations.

Of course there is much much more with regard to MacDonald. Constant lies. Multi-million-dollar indebtedness and financial mismanagement and fraud. Stunningly abusive, profane and misogynistic language. Attempting to grope a female staff member on an airplane. Insanely luxurious lifestyle that included high stakes gambling forays with fellow evangelical fraud Jerry Jenkins of “Left Behind” fame. MacDonald was recorded talking about planting child pornography on the computer of a Christian statesman he disliked. James MacDonald is basically Al Capone. He’s a psychopathic mobster who masqueraded as an evangelical pastor and managed to fool the vast majority of the evangelical public into believing that he was a Christian. For decades!

Number 4: Ravi Zacharias. Zacharias was celebrated by some as the greatest Christian apologist of our generation. An apologist is one who defends the faith intellectually before skeptics and antagonists of that faith. I know it is easy to say this now – but it is nonetheless true – I was never a fan of his apologetic work. It always seemed that when I heard him speak I had the frustration of listening to a man who could not hold a train of thought in his head for more than 90 seconds. He was extremely listenable, but organizationally his presentations were all over the place, and none of his thoughts tied together. His talks melted away in your mind like unsweetened cotton candy. That said, I had nothing against him personally.

That is, until about a year and a half, two years ago, when I learned that he had been lying constantly for years. And his lies were thoroughly, openly documented in work of Steve Baughman, an atheist opponent. For example, Zacharias had claimed to be a professor at Oxford. He claimed to study quantum mechanics under physicist John Polkinghorne at Cambridge. He exaggerated or just outright invented academic credentials again and again and again. When his mammoth dishonesty was exposed it should have ended his public ministry right there. But it didn’t. He still had his radio program on WMBI. He was still invited to Christian conferences around the world, like the Sing! 2020 conference hosted by the Gettys (though it was cancelled by Covid). His self-named organization Ravi Zacharias International Ministries continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars. And sadly, none of the respected speakers in his ministry like John Lennox or Sam Alberry resigned in protest and disgust. I was disgusted. In my outrage I even wrote an essay, “Why is my atheist son more honest than Ravi Zacharias?”

If a man is a chronic liar like Zacharias, you can be sure that dishonesty is not his only vice. After Ravi’s death in May of last year it was revealed that he had abused an untold number of women here in the States and in Thailand, and India and Malaysia. Under the guise of massage therapy he demanded sexual favors from the women treating him. He groomed them, pressured them, threatened them, demanded their silence, and paid them off when necessary. His phone after his death was found to have hundreds of pictures of such women on it.

All those years that Ravi Zacharias spent speaking at our conferences and writing bestsellers and receiving accolades as the greatest Christian apologist of our generation he should have spent in a prison cell as a rapist.

It makes me want to scream and break things. But I know that I must exercise emotional and physical self-control lest the truths that I speak risk being dismissed as the rantings of an unbalanced zealot. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, whom I love and before whom I tremble. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, who loved sinners like me and gave his life on their behalf in order to unite them with God the Father. I am a follower of Jesus Christ in the evangelical tradition, meaning, among things, that I am eager to communicate the evangel - the good news - that Jesus Christ is Lord and king, and through his death and resurrection he has opened the way to the Father that we might have a share in God’s eternal, holy delight.

But in seeking to communicate this truth to a spiritually needy world, I find that there have gone before me utterly depraved conscienceless demons in human form who wore the mask of evangelical Christian, but whose daily lives indicated that they had rejected Jesus, did not have the Holy Spirit within them, and obviously never believed for a minute that they would actually appear before him to render account. And moreover, these fakes, these evildoers, have not been obscure cases, marginal oddballs, one-out-of-12 bad apple like Judas Iscariot. They have been, one after another, the most prominent names in evangelicalism.

And I have barely scratched the surface. When I began preparation for this message I had 15 names I wanted to give you. But I realized that there would not be enough time, and it would become oppressive, and your eyes would glaze over. So let me run through just three more names, very quickly, with just a few sentences each.

For years, the largest evangelical university has been Liberty University in Virginia. Till last year its president was Jerry Falwell Jr. Jerry Falwell Jr. is a lying drunken skirt-chasing party animal. Among many other acts of Jerry Springeresque depravity, he matched up his wife to a handsome young pool boy so that he could watch the two of them cavort together.

Next, Hillsong (frequently and understandably misheard as Hellsong.) Hillsong is a musically fecund megachurch headquartered in Australia but with venomous tentacles everywhere. Most evangelical churches support it unknowingly by singing its copyrighted songs. Hillsong’s New York pastor, Carl Lentz, was pastor to the stars. He palled around with Justin Bieber whom he baptized in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub. Kevin Durant also went to that church, along with Selena Gomez, a Kardashian and a couple Jenners. And of course Lentz got to be interviewed by Oprah. He was finally exposed for tawdry extramarital affairs and let go by his boss, the founder of Hillsong and openly greedy celebrity panderer Brian Houston. Earlier this month, Brian Houston was formally charged by police with covering up the crimes of a child rapist – his father, Pastor Frank Houston, who gave Brian his start in the ministry. Listen: Hillsong is a big pile of manure from beginning to end. It’s garbage on steroids posing as a church.

Do you remember my misgiving number 3? That is, someone could say, “But evangelicals have always been saying, ‘Friends, things are really bad now.’” Here is how my imagination responds. If I could time-travel Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones and Schaeffer and Wiersbe into the present moment and explain to them what has transpired – not in the world generally, nor in Christendom vaguely, but specifically in evangelical Christianity among its prime representatives - I picture these preachers of old growing pale, grabbing an armrest for support, having to sit down, and then saying something like, “Surely the end of days has come.”

And I do not believe it is simply a matter of our having a particularly bad run of corrupt leaders. Rather, evil men have risen to power and influence within evangelicalism in large part because of a foolish, undiscerning, careless evangelical public. In this regard I like to quote my son Peter who once said, “Hitler did not kill six million Jews by himself.” He had help. Of course Hitler had the active help of villains and bloodthirsty psychopaths. But he also stood atop a great pyramid of sleeping boulders in the German public who lent their unthinking support.

Part of my goal over these next few weeks is to awaken analogically similar sleeping boulders in the evangelical community. I want fellow Christians to know the part they played, perhaps unwittingly, in the current debacle. And I want them to be better equipped to spot the warning signs and red flags to which our community has been, and still remains, culpably blind. There are still many wolves out there in shepherds’ clothing, and sometimes I almost despair over the fact that my dear brothers and sisters are still not seeing the fangs and the claws.

I will close now by addressing what to me is the biggest elephant-in-the-room question. Are the corrupt spokesmen of evangelicalism that I listed today damned souls? Are they going to hell, or in Ravi Zacharias’s case, in hell already?

I prefer to stop just short of saying, concerning any specific individual, that that person is in hell or will certainly go to hell. There is more than one reason for this reticence. I am not the arbiter of anyone’s final destiny. God is. And I could never know whether a man was – perhaps - born again on his deathbed and then received by God’s grace into paradise.

But here is something I do know for sure because the Bible says it so many times. People who behave the way these men behave are not saved, and they are bound for hell.

Ephesians 5:5: "For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient."

Galatians 5:19-21: "The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."

1 Corinthians 6:9-10: "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Revelation 21:8: "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur."

God alone knows who is saved and who is not. 2 Timothy 2:19 says, “The Lord knows those who are his,” And then it goes on to say, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”

I wonder if anyone who hears or reads these words thinks, “But those scary verses about God’s condemnation of the wicked apply to me! I’m going to hell. According to the Bible I’ll be excluded from the kingdom of God and cast into the fiery pit.”

I am not here to reassure any evildoer with mild words saying, “You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.” But there is a question I would put to any person who knows himself or herself to be a sinner in danger of God’s condemnation. And the question is, “Do you want to be made good?” Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Do you want to be pure in heart? The Bible says, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews12:14). Do you want to be holy? Be honest. Many people would prefer to remain the way they are because the idea of being remade, reborn into truly good personhood and fashioned by God’s hand into a fit and worthy citizen of heaven is too difficult, too costly, too alien, too different from that which they know themselves to be.

I can’t answer this for you. But if you want God and you want his goodness and you hate your wickedness and you just wish you could be free from it, I have good news. God loves you. It is not God’s will that you should perish and go to hell. It is his will that that you repent and be saved. It is his will to transform you into that which he can love more fully and into that which can know the joy of delighting in him foreever. And there is more good news. Your sins, which are many, and which testify against you, and which indeed would weigh down your soul into the pit of hell, have been placed upon the shoulders of God’s Son Jesus Christ, who died so that those sins could be forgiven and who rose again so that he could receive you into the place where he lives, in joy, forever.

Talk to him now and ask him to save you. The Bible says, “Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

I will now say a prayer on behalf of any who want to be saved from their sin and made holy unto God. Let us pray.

Lord God, there is wickedness all around me, including among those who claim to know you and have been your chief representatives here. I can’t do anything about them. But right now my only concern is the wickedness within me. Please don’t let it stay there and fester and turn me into a monster. Don’t let me be or become a fake. Save me from myself. Forgive my sin. May your Holy Spirit take control of me and change me, no matter how hard that is and no matter how long it takes. Thank you that because of what your Son Jesus did on the cross, dying on behalf of sinners, I can pray this prayer and have hope of receiving your grace.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

For A Granddaughter Starting Kindergarten

Lena,

I am glad that you will be starting kindergarten soon.

Would you like to know the best thing about going to school?

The best thing about going to school is that it gives you a chance to be kind to people you never had a chance to be kind to before.

I know that you love to think, and that makes me happy. Here is something good to think about: "How can I be kind to people and not be mean to them?"

It is good to be kind, and it is bad to be mean.

Sometimes I hear grownups talk about things that happened to them when they were very young. Although they have forgotten many things, they often remember very clearly those times when someone was mean to them. I like to think that nobody will ever remember you being mean. Instead, I imagine that, many years from now, some troubled person will say something like this: "The other kids were mean to me sometimes. But Lena Lundquist was always nice to me."

I hope that you like school. But I can think of something even better than liking school. That would be if your teachers and the other kids like school more just because you are there.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Wait A Minute. God Told A Man To Murder His Son? (Genesis 22)

I would like to begin with a thought experiment. For the purposes of this experiment imagine yourself to physically impaired. Maybe you are in a wheelchair or have some degenerative condition. You hear blood-curdling screams coming from next door. You make your way over there as fast as you can. You see that your neighbor has tied up his son and bound him to the kitchen table. He has raised a knife over him to kill him. You cry out “Stop!” The father looks at you and says, “I know this looks bad. But God told me to kill my son. And I must obey God.”

What would you do? Here is something I don’t think you would do. I don’t believe you would say, “Wow. I am in awe of your faith. I am humbled by your willingness to obey God even when he commands something difficult. But you’re right. God must be obeyed no matter what. Go ahead and kill your son.” None of us would say that, right? All of us would try to stop him, right?

But how would you do that? I have stipulated that you are disabled. You do not have the quickness or strength physically to stop the murder. Do you call 911? That won’t help. This father is on a mission from God. His son will be dead in a matter of moments, long before the police get there. The only thing that you have at your disposal is your speech, your words - your ability to argue him out of it. Let us say that despite all appearances the father is rational. He will listen to what you have to say. He can follow a train of thought and will heed a fair argument.

So what do you say? Do you say, “Defy God! Disobey him!” That won’t work. He won’t choose to obey you rather than God. So do you say, “You’ll go to prison for this!” I think he has considered that probability and is prepared to accept the consequences. He believes that God must be obeyed no matter what, even if it means prison or death.

I think I know what I would say – or at least the line of reasoning that I would try to use. I would say, “But that wasn’t God! You have been deceived. How do you know it was God speaking to you and not some demon impersonating God and trying to trick you into doing something bad? The Bible says do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see if they are from God. Well let’s test this spirit. I can show you that God – the real God – does not command child sacrifice. In fact, he forbids it. Here’s what the Bible says.”

And then we would go through some Scripture texts. Exodus 20:13: "You shall not kill." See? God says don’t kill. Jeremiah 32:35: “They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them [the Lord says], nor did it enter my mind, that they should do this abomination.” See that? Child sacrifice is an abomination. It was a way of worshiping Molech, not God. God says it never entered his mind to command that kind of worship. And then Deuteronomy 12:30-31: God says to the people of Israel with regard to pagan Canaanites, “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.’ You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” Do you see? God hates that kind of thing. God says it is detestable to offer up your son or daughter as a sacrifice. That’s pagan worship, not God-worship. God does not want to be worshiped that way. So, clearly, it wasn’t God who told you to sacrifice your son!

You say all this, and the father stares at you in stunned silence. Then he lays down his knife. He says, “By golly you’re right. I have been deceived. What I thought was the voice of God really wasn’t God at all. It was probably just some demon or something. Sorry about that, son. My bad.”

Well now we have solved the problem of our hypothetical homicidal neighbor, but in doing so we have had to open up a can of worms and spill it all over the page of Genesis 22. I can’t be the only one to whom the question has occurred, “How did Abraham know that it was God who was telling him to sacrifice his son?” Why didn’t Abraham reject that command as the voice of an imposter, a demon clearly opposed to the character of the one true God? And if it was God, how could he command child sacrifice? Even granted that he rescinds the commandment at the last possible moment, how could he order it in the first place? Would God command a man to commit adultery, only to stop him just as he is about to commit the act? How could God command something he declares evil? And what’s to prevent him from doing that now?

It is my very limited purpose in this sermon to provide a response to these troubling questions and then relate them to some other issues that for me at least help shed light on how God deals with humanity, and how we are to read the Bible as a whole.

To do this we have to dive into Abraham’s world. Please understand that Abraham did not grow up in a Christian home. He couldn’t have, because Jesus Christ would not be born for another 2,000 years. There were no Christians then. Abraham did not even grow up in a Jewish home. There were no Jews. In fact we get the word “Jew” from the name “Judah”, and Judah was Abraham’s great grandson. So when we read this account in Genesis 22, remember that the first Jew is decades away from being born.

But at least Abraham would have had some of the Bible, right? No. None of it. The first 5 books of the Bible are attributed to Moses, and he would not be born for another 600 years or so. It is worth pausing to ask yourself the question, “What would you know about God – his nature, his character, whether there was just one of him – what would you know about God if there were no Jesus, no Bible, no church, no synagogue. No 10 commandments. No Lord’s Prayer. No Apostles’ Creed. Nothing like that. What would shape your understanding of God, or gods - or let’s just say “supernatural reality” - if you had none of those things to inform you? It is fair to say that you would absorb, for the most part, whatever was in your environment, or culture. Maybe not 100 percent, but an awful lot of it. Because we all do this. It is impossible not to. We like to imagine that we are independent thinkers, objective and rational in how we form our worldview and make our judgments of right and wrong, and what the world is like and what our place in it is. But the fact is, a lot of that is determined for us by our culture, our group, our era - and through those influences there are formed within us assumptions that we don’t even recognize as assumptions. They are so much a part of us that it never occurs to us to question them.

Now consider Abraham. Do we know anything about Abraham’s religious upbringing? As a matter of fact we do. He was raised as a pagan. I do not mean “pagan” as an insult, but simply as an objective term. Abraham was raised to worship idols. In Joshua 24:2 it says: “Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.”’”

Abraham’s father was an idol-worshiper, and so Abraham was raised in an idol-worshiping home in an idol-worshiping culture. And that fact wore the grooves in his brain through which could flow thoughts about supernatural reality. Again, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that at this time there was no Christianity, no Judaism, no church, no synagogue, no Bible. If God were to speak to Abraham at all, he would have to speak Abraham’s language. Not just his verbal language but his mind-and-culture language. God must stoop to Abraham’s level and communicate with him in a way that makes sense to him. As God must do with us all, if we are to understand anything he says.

In Abraham’s world, the gods were powerful and involved with humanity – they could wreck your life or enhance it – but I know no evidence to suggest that pagans ever understood their gods to be fundamentally good. Compassionate. Kind. Fair. Loving. Just. On the side of the oppressed rather than the oppressor. The later Roman and Greek gods were certainly not like that. They were a rowdy bunch, and not in a good way. As best as I have been able to determine, while there were people in the ancient Near East who were fanatically, radically devoted to their gods, they did not love their gods. They felt no affection, no warm-hearted delight in them. Nobody loved Molech, or Chemosh, or Baal, or Asherah, or Marduk. How could you love those gods? You feared those gods. You wanted to be on their good side. You wanted them working for you and not against you. So you would give them things to appease them so that they would like you and give you good luck, not bad luck. Think of it this way. If there is a powerful bully in your neighborhood, and no recourse to justice beyond that bully, would you rather he be fighting you or your evil enemies? That’s an easy choice for most people.

When God told Abraham to offer up his only legitimate son Isaac, he was speaking a language that Abraham understood, and understood all too well. Child sacrifice was something that many gods commanded, and were pleased with, according to the thinking of the day. Child sacrifice was a sign of earnest and absolute devotion to your god – the ultimate indicator that you would do anything to have that god on your side. Let me recommend to you, if you have the time, interest and stomach for it, the Wikipedia entry on “Child Sacrifice”. There you will learn how prevalent and universal this custom has been. It is safe to say you will find it on every continent except Antarctica. It wasn’t just Molech. As I started to read that article I was thinking that I couldn’t remember if it was the Aztecs or the Incas or the Mayas who sacrificed children. It turns out all three of them did – and some other American civilizations as well. It was in Carthage and Greece and northern Europe, and you can go on and on. And I’m not even including the infanticide of unwanted children, children who are regarded as a burden or a threat, as when Pharaoh ordered the drowning of Hebrew baby boys in Exodus 1, or when Herod the Great authorized the slaughter of boys two and under in Bethlehem in Matthew 2. That is a separate issue. The slaughter of young innocents for the sake of convenience, power and autonomy has continued unabated to the present day, and has even accelerated. But I am not including that at all. Just restricting ourselves to the concept of sacrificing a child to appease a god – that was all over the place in the ancient world.

So while I believe that while Abraham would have been saddened and grieved that his God would require him to sacrifice his son, I don’t believe he would have been stunned or outraged. Because the gods were like that. They had a right to your firstborn – and more, and they could assert that right, and you had no standing before them such that you could defy them, go your own way, say to them, “No, this is mine, not yours! Stay in your lane, Molech, or Chemosh, or Jehovah, whoever you are. When I want something from you I’ll let you know, and if I give you something it will be on my terms and you better be satisfied with it.” No, no, no. You did not address the gods that way. They had authority over you, not you over them.

I believe that the surprise that Abraham would have felt would not have consisted in the fact that his God required his son, but specifically this son, Isaac, whom God had promised earlier would be the one through whom his lineage would continue. Now that was a tough nut to crack. It was puzzling to say the least. How could God do the impossible? How could he say on the one hand, “Through your son Isaac alone your descendants will multiply and all nations will be blessed” and then also, “Your son must be sacrificed before any of that can happen”? How does that make sense? The book of Hebrews suggests that Abraham had to reason his way to a resurrection.

Before continuing with this theme I would like to relate it to a seemingly unrelated one that I guarantee many of you will find deeply offensive and repulsive. And you should be repulsed. At the end of Genesis 22, we read this comment about Abraham’s brother and sister-in-law. It says in verses 23 and 24, “Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.” Did you hear the word “concubine” in there? That’s a mistress. Abraham’s brother had 8 sons by his wife, and also 4 more with his mistress.

Would you have a problem with your brother if he had a mistress in addition to his wife? I hope you would. But Abraham didn’t have a problem with it. Not at all. Because Abraham himself had mistresses. Plural. We read that in Genesis 25:6, which says, “while he was still living, [Abraham] gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.” Concubines? He had concubines?

In our day we rightly condemn pornography, and spiritual men resist its temptations. But Father Abraham was such a lascivious philanderer that he didn’t only look at images of unclad women, he looked at the women themselves, and slept with them, and had children by them – repeatedly. And apparently without any sense of guilt whatsoever.

It gets worse. He was sexist. He had an outrageous double standard, as did all the patriarchs. Because while he could have other lovers, do you think his wife could have her share of carnal boyfriends? Of course not. That would be adultery. That would be unfaithfulness. You see for Abraham, marital faithfulness only applied to women. The only way he could commit adultery was by sleeping with another man’s wife. He knew that that was wrong, but as long as his mistresses weren’t married, he felt he could have as many as he wanted. Same with King David. David had 7 wives and 10 concubines. He had 17 women he could sleep with. But in his mind, and in that of the culture of his day, it was only adultery when he took another man’s wife – Bathsheba. If Bathsheba had been single, she just would have become wife number 8 or concubine number 11 and no one would have batted an eye.

Are you disgusted? Please be disgusted. Some of you may remember back in 2009, the world was outraged and sickened to learn that Tiger Woods had about 10 mistresses. His wife may have beaten him up about that. She divorced him, and he was a moral outcast for some time. If we could go back in time and inform Father Abraham and King David of this news story about Tiger Woods, we can well imagine them scratching their heads and saying “This is a scandal? Why? Were any of those women married?”

How unbelievably obtuse they were, morally speaking. I’m not making excuses for men like Abraham and David. They were disgusting, depraved, despicable human beings. I repeat: Abraham and David were disgusting, depraved, despicable human beings. Abraham was so warped in his thinking that he could conceive of a God who would order him to slit his son’s throat and burn him, but could not imagine a God who would keep him from having a harem. How twisted is that?

If you say that Abraham was a disgustingly primitive barbarian, I will agree with you. But please listen to this further point. You also are a disgustingly primitive barbarian. And so am I. We are barbarians too. We just can’t see it yet. Our descendants will see it, if they are worthy. Hundreds of years from now, maybe a lot less, our descendants, if they have not been corrupted, will be revolted and disgusted by us – and their revulsion will be legitimate, and it will concern things that don’t even occur to us to feel guilty about now. They’re things that aren’t even on our radar screen.

Let me give you a historical example. Ask any theology professor who is the greatest American theologian, and number one on anyone’s list is Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758. Even those who disagree with him theologically have to acknowledge that he was a man of stupendous learning, honest, hardworking, extremely devout, self-disciplined, beloved by his wife and kids, highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic and by the indigenous community with which he worked and by Princeton University of which he was president at the very end of his life. And he was also God’s prime mover in what is now called the Great Awakening, the flashes of revival in the 1730s that have repercussions to this day. Amazing man.

And he was a slave-owner. It wasn’t even a case of him inheriting a slave from his father or marrying into a family that already had slaves – no, he himself actually went out and bought a human being at auction. That was wrong. That was evil. He should have known better. He should have been an abolitionist. He should at least have been wracked with guilt over his participation in slavery, the way John Newton was, the man who went from slave-trading to slavery-fighting and eventually wrote the words we love to sing, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” But there is no indication that Jonathan Edwards ever felt the least bit troubled about buying and owning a human being.

Jonathan Edwards had a moral blind spot that astonishes anyone with moral sensitivity. So did Martin Luther, and so did King David, and so did Father Abraham. And on and on and on. But if you dismiss such people, hold them in contempt, ridicule their barbarisms and refuse to learn anything from them and their stories, be aware that you too will be rightly disregarded by future generations who will consider you to be a moral monster for things that do not afflict your conscience.

Only God, the one eternal Creator God, has and is the unwavering standard of true holiness by which all actions are judged. Now here is something thing that must be understood from the Abraham story in Genesis 22 and from the Bible as a whole. God, despite his holiness and our corruption, stoops. God stoops to our level. Rather than rejecting us out of hand as incorrigible, unteachable failures, God comes all the way down into our limited understanding and speaks in a language that we can grasp. He takes us by the hand to the next step, like a parent holding a toddler’s hand and guiding her up a staircase. The toddler can’t see the top of the staircase and doesn’t even know how far away it is. But by holding tight onto her father’s hand she can struggle to the next step, though later as a 12-year-old she’ll bound up those steps two at a time, running. As a 15-month old she’s not ready for that.

But at the same time, to press the metaphor, there are things that a 15-month old can learn that a 12-year-old can’t, like visual perception and first language acquisition. You have to learn those things very young, and in gradual stages. As we know now, if you are deprived completely of language or sight in youth, then as an older person you will never learn to speak fluently or perceive the dimensions of clear sight even if hearing and vision are restored to you.

I am going to suggest to you a truth that was communicated to this moral-and-theological toddler Abraham in Genesis 22 that could only be expressed to him at that stage of development – and that could never be said the same way to moral and theological 12-year-olds like us.

I believe that God was saying to Abraham – if I, with reverence and fear, may presume to put words in God’s mouth – something like, “Abraham, you must be no less devoted to me than your pagan neighbors are to their gods. You must render me absolute obedience. You must not think of me as a chill, easy-going God who drops in and out of your life like a cool uncle but does not really care whether you trust me and will do as I say. Abraham, I am your God. Everything you think you own in truth belongs to me. So. Give me your son.” That makes cruel sense to Abraham in his time and culture. He does not know, and God knows that he does not know – as we know, 4000 years later, that there is something here that is out of character with the one true God, so much out of character that he will later forbid the practice. But then, just as Abraham is about to commit the act, God intervenes and provides a substitute sacrifice – a ram whose horns are caught in the bushes. So indeed, there will be a sacrifice – that is nonnegotiable – but God is the one who will provide it. God provides the substitute so that Isaac can live and Abraham can rejoice.

In this, I believe, Abraham learns a crucial lesson that we take for granted. Namely, that his God is not like those other gods, those false gods of human imagining. Jehovah does not belong in the same category. He must be obeyed with no less reverence than Molech. But he’s not Molech. The true God stops a man from sacrificing his son, rather than making him go through with it and then delighting in the final deadly result. Abraham’s God is powerful and sovereign. But he is also good.

4,000 years later we who live this side of the cross of Jesus Christ understand so much more of this story that Abraham at his stage could never even have guessed at. Because now we have a wider view of where this story was going all along. God does not say to us, “Give me your son.” Rather he says, “I give you my Son. You don’t offer your son as a sacrifice to me. I offer up my Son, Myself, as a sacrifice for you." For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.

As I conclude now, I acknowledge that I have not answered one of the questions that I posed at the beginning: “How did Abraham know it was God telling him to sacrifice his son?” I’m not sure that question is answerable. I can answer to my own satisfaction - if to no one else’s – a different question, the question of whether God could command a man to sacrifice his son today, even as a test. The answer is absolutely not. Because that command was crucially dependent on Abraham’s culture and understanding and moral development 2,000 years before the cross of Christ. Today is a different era, we have a greater understanding of God, and sons of zealous fathers may rest easy in their beds. But can I say anything to that nagging question, “How did Abraham know it was God?” And beyond that, how can we ourselves know for sure that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life?

At the end of C S Lewis' great fantasy novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, some weary and hungry travelers arrive at a table spread lavishly with food and drink. Hungry as they are, they are afraid to partake because they think the food might be enchanted and will do them mischief. A solemn and majestic young woman appears, speaks with them briefly, and invites them to eat and drink at Aslan’s table. Edmund demurs, saying, “When I look in your face I can’t help believing all you say: but then that’s just what might happen with a witch too. How are we to know that you’re a friend?” She replies, “You can’t know. You can only believe – or not.”

After a moment’s pause noble Reepicheep says, “Sire, of your courtesy fill my cup with wine from that flagon. It is too big for me to lift. I will drink to the lady." Soon he and all the travelers are refreshed and full and content. Or, as the Bible says in Psalm 34:8, Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Let us pray.

Almighty Creator, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for stooping to us in our foolishness and wickedness, and for speaking to us in ways that we can understand. Thank you for not rejecting us but rather working in us with patience to conform us to the image or your Son Jesus whom you provided to appease the wrath that we provoked and to invite us into an eternal joy that we never deserved. In his name, amen.

Full text of Genesis 22:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.“ The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. 9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed,[c] because you have obeyed me.”19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. 0 Some time later Abraham was told, “Milkah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), 22 Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” 23 Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milkah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. 24 His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maakah.