What Do You Say After 9 Months of Silence?

This Sunday, we'll look at one event leading up to the birth of Jesus, namely, the birth of John the Baptist. When an angel told Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son in their old age, Zechariah didn't believe it. He was made mute until John was born (Luke 1.5-25). As I studied these stories, I got to thinking, "What do you say after being unable to talk for nine months?"  We have the answer to that question in Luke 1.67-79. It's a great model for turning away from unbelief.

Book Review: Carson's Call for Spiritual Reformation

by Matthew Raley D. A. Carson. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his PrayersGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.

Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).

In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.

Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.

In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.

This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.

There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.

Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

"Fear of the Lord" Means "Fear"

by Matthew Raley For many American evangelicals, "fearing God" has come to mean respecting Him a bunch. God is a coach. He knows what he's doing, and you should keep that in mind if he makes a decision you don't like. You should also keep in mind that Coach's blustering is just drama to keep you on your toes.

So when Solomon says (Proverbs 1.7) that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," he's not talking about fear-fear; he's just saying, "Show some respect! You might learn a thing or two."

The problem is that, both in the Old and New Testaments, human behavior in the presence of God is consistently desperate. When Isaiah saw the Lord (Isaiah 6.5), he exclaimed literally, "I am annihilated!" Ezekiel's vision of God's glory put him in a stupor for a week (Ezekiel 3.15). John saw the resurrected Jesus (Revelation 1.17), on whose bosom he had once reclined, and "fell at [Jesus'] feet as though dead."

Respect isn't a believable reaction to the awesome nature of God's presence. Fear is.

Solomon is saying that fear -- real fear -- is the beginning of knowledge because it's the right emotional response to the power and holiness of God. It's the starting-point for measuring life, the foundation of safety and health.

But how can you relate to God without being paralyzed?

When my dad taught me to use a lawn mower, the first thing he did was start it, turn it on its side, and show me the blade. He wanted me to be afraid of it, and I was. Then he showed me how to be safe: never pull the mower toward my feet, etc. Once I knew how to use the mower, I pushed it confidently -- even though my fear of the blade remained vivid.

Think of this kind of fear more personally.

When a man is abusive, you fear him because you never know what he's going to do. You try to judge what mood he's in, to discover early warnings that he's about to go off, because his anger could flare instantly.

The fear of God is not like that.

I feared my dad, and still do, not because he was unpredictable and abusive, but because he had integrity and consistency. His reaction toward wrong was nothing to trifle with.

We fear God not because he is abusive -- because we never know what he'll do -- but because we know exactly what he will do. The scriptures reveal his nature for just that reason. So for me, there is no contradiction between fearing God and having an intimate confidence in him. In fact, the right kind of fear is the foundation of confidence.

My Students In Penang

by Matthew Raley Today, after sixteen hours of teaching over four days, I said goodbye to my students. It was difficult for me to do.

I didn't know what to expect of the class when I arrived. I wondered how extensive their Bible knowledge would be, whether they would have an understanding of doctrine, and what their English level would be. On all points, I was impressed.

To a person, they were deeply engaged in the subject of how to tell biblical stories. Most were experienced teachers, and articulated many problems of teaching the Bible. Their questions showed a keen interest in how to interact with their listeners effectively. They know the Bible well. There was little that was unfamiliar to them, in terms of the basics of biblical history and of hermeneutics. They were ready to move ahead.

I feel that I worked them pretty hard. My ways of analyzing biblical texts to discover meaning and application are in some ways different from established procedures. I ask different questions than many pastors ask. But the class pushed through the concepts and, I believe, understands them quite well.

Several came to me with projects they were working on, or problems they were having in teaching. The issues ranged from preaching to established congregations to developing stories for the children of dockworkers in Taiwan. It was clear that both younger and older students were using my grid to solve their problems, and that was highly encouraging to me.

Between classes, I was able to interact with an American missionary who had been in China for thirty years, and who expressed frustration with Western modes of teaching. For the first time, she said, she found some of the tools she was looking for. One of the most common problems I hear from missionaries is the disconnect between the way Westerners are trained to teach and the way most peoples of the world learn.

Another student was a young architect, who audited the class, sitting perfectly still, watching and listening intently, missing nothing, but absolutely silent. During one lengthy break, she began asking me probing questions, and we discussed the professional world she lived in, and the insular world of churches. She was exceedingly well informed about developments around the world. The fact that Malaysian Christianity has people filled with such cultural curiosity and professional savvy bodes well.

There were young men preparing to be pastors while working to provide for their families, like one young man who is here from South Korea, or caring for parents, like another who was taking his mother for cancer treatments between classes and sermon preparation.

Most of the students were preparing for lay work, which also will be a tremendous source of strength for churches. Many lay people do not have the zeal to gain real skill in God's Word. But these do, and they are succeeding.

It was hard to leave them today. I am energized by this level of dedication.

Rebellion and Deceit

by Matthew Raley The first moral precept I can remember learning is, "Do not lie."

The form it took was more specific: "Never lie to Dad." And its logic was compelling. If Dad finds out you lied to anybody else, the effect is the same as lying to Dad. Ergo, just don't.

From Deuteronomy 31-32, we have seen that there are four sinful patterns involved in rebellion, the disregard or overthrow of authority. The first is idolatry, inventing a god that is pliable. Idolatry makes war on reality by insisting that everything conform to our subjective demands, even God.

The second pattern of sin in rebellion, according to Deuteronomy, is deceit.

The Lord tells Moses that Israel will “break my covenant that I have made with them,” a phrase he repeats four verses later (31:16, 20). Israel’s oath-breaking is the specific reason God commands Moses to place the Book of the Law beside the ark “for a witness” (31:26). Every transaction with a lying people must be verified.

In his song in chapter 32, Moses declares that the people are “a crooked and twisted generation,” calling them “children in whom there is no faithfulness” (32:5, 20). He pointedly refers to the nation as “Jacob” (32:9), the grasping, usurping, deceitful patriarch whom the Lord blessed only through prolonged wrestling.

Lying was typical of the nation’s behavior under Moses.

There was deceit in the people’s fantasies about their life as slaves in Egypt (e.g. Exodus 16:3), where they imagined that they once “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full.” The making of the golden calf was not only idolatry, but was the breaking of a promise made by the people in Exodus 19:8. “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Deceit would also characterize future generations. In Joshua 24:19-22, the people explicitly confirmed the Lord’s covenant, only to break it throughout their history.

The perverse logic of rebellion is at work.

No rebel can acknowledge a duty to tell the truth or keep promises without undercutting his war against authority. The ultimate truth is the rebel’s own will. Anything binding his will must be cut, and accuracy becomes just one more shackle. The first casualty in the rebel’s war for control is the truth.

Our culture is uniquely decadent in world history, apparently committed to a principle that words do not matter. I see this at a number of levels.

We seem to have a legalistic view of oaths now, as if the precision of words allows one to escape telling the truth. "It depends on what is is." The more common view of oaths in human cultures down through the ages has been that words leaving lips are absolutely binding on the soul. Certainly every age has seen its share of infidelity, but few have indulged the nihilism of writing infidelity off as normal.

Furthermore, because words were seen as bonds, human cultures have consistently treated vows as a matter of prescription,  not invention. For instance, few people even fifty years ago contemplated that a couple should write their own wedding vows "so the ceremony will be more meaningful." There was a simple reason: if someone could write their own vows, then they could make marriage whatever they wanted it to be.

I see our decadence in seemingly smaller issues, such as usage. In our society, flippancy in using words can be found in people speaking of "humans," not "human beings," as if referring to a mere species, and in such published howlers as when the AP referred to Leviticus as a "chapter" in the Bible. Americans now operate at a deep level of illiteracy, and they do so because words do not matter to them.

Loose speech is an overlooked contributor to the mainstreaming of deceit. We now live in a society where a Standard & Poor's triple-A rating is near meaningless, where promises are merely strategic, and where leadership and sales are interchangeable terms.

So parents face monumental challenges in teaching a child to speak and act truly. But they should also understand the power of this training. When a child forms a resolution to tell the truth and to keep promises, he or she gains habits of discernment, self-control, and healthy submission that undermine the allure of rebellion.

In other words, when Dad and Mom confronted deceit in me, I believe they were installing in my heart-and-mind another powerful software for syncing with reality.

Give Me Tough Questions for 2009

by Matthew Raley "The Ideologists," by Max Beckmann, 1919, Museum of Modern Art

I am gathering topics for Tough Questions 2009, the annual sermon series in which the community tells me what to preach. This year, the term "community" embraces the blogosphere.

In the comments to this post, leave any question about morality, politics, spirituality, or culture related to Christianity, and I will choose six to answer. The best questions are precisely worded, and come in complete English sentences. (Yes, that has been a problem.) For a collection of last year's topics, click here.

The series will begin August 9. If you're not anywhere close to the Evangelical Free Church of Orland, CA, or in any case have no inclination to go there, the audio will be available here at Tritone Life.