Monday, September 27, 2010

Trusting God

In the preface of Trusting God, Jerry Bridges states the purposes of the book are to “glorify God by acknowledging His sovereignty and goodness. And to encourage God’s people by demonstrating from Scripture that God is in control of their lives, he does indeed love them and that He does work out all circumstances in their lives for their ultimate good” (9). Bridges definitely accomplishes his purpose

Jerry Bridges begins Trusting God begins with a question that is relevant to every believer. Can we trust God in a fallen world and life that is often marked by suffering, brokenness, frustration and pain? His answer is yes we can, if we will view our circumstances through faith. Namely, the faith imparted to us through the Scriptures and applied to our hearts by the Spirit, which teach three essential truths about God (45). God is Sovereign, infinite in wisdom and perfect in love (16). These three truths are basic outline of the book.

In introducing God’s sovereignty Bridges says, “If there is a single event in the universe outside God’s control we cannot trust Him” (35). God is in absolute control and no act or circumstances can occur outside of God’s sovereign will, and no one can thwart his purposes or plans. God has a special purpose and plan for believers. That plan it is to make them like Jesus and it requires some adversity. Bridges goes on to talk about how God’s sovereignty relates to people, nations, nature and human responsibility. He finishes his discussion about God’s sovereignty by exploring the relationship between it and human responsibility. He observes that Scripture teaches both truths, but it is impossible to reconcile them. Bridges adds that God’s Sovereignty does not negate human responsibility.

After God’s sovereignty, the author discusses God’s wisdom. He points out that God is infinite in wisdom, incomprehensible in his ways and never makes mistakes. He knows what is best for us and how to work that out, which often includes adversity.

The next section of Trusting God, chapters nine and ten, focus on God’s love. Bridges begins this section by stating the more we believe in God’s sovereignty the more we are tempted to question his love in adversity. We are apt to think, “If God is in control of this adversity and can do something about it, why doesn’t He” (109)? When tempted to doubt God’s love we must remember God’s love expressed at the cross, our identity as his adopted children and his love continually expressed to us because of our union with Christ.

The final four chapters of Trusting God hone in on personal application. Chapter eleven talks about accepting the way God made us. The following chapter focuses on cooperating with God in adversity to reap the greatest spiritual benefit, which is to know God better. Chapter 13 reminds us that it is not enough to know the truth about God, that he is sovereign, loving and wise, we must choose to believe and act on the truth. The final chapter closes the discussion by stating that if we truly believe in a sovereign God who is all-loving and all-wise, we will show it by thanking him, worshiping him, humbly submitting to him and seeking his glory in adversity and prosperity.

Bridges arguments for trusting God, “even when life hurts,” are excellent. They are well supported and illustrated by Scripture. In fact, one can find little with which to disagree, except for his statement on pages 128-129, where Bridges says that “God never explains to us what he is doing and why.” He says this in the context of his discussion about wisdom and Job’s suffering. While Bridge’s statement is certainly true about Job, it is not universally true at all times. God does sometimes choose to explain what he is doing and why, especially when it comes to suffering.

For example, in 2 Sam. 12:1-14 in the Lord’s confrontation of David through Nathan the prophet, he reveals what he is going to do and why. Nathan tells David that adversity will never depart from his house because his sin against Uriah gave the Lord’s enemies a reason to blaspheme. Then Nathan details for David the specific kinds of suffering that he will experience due to his sin. Granted this suffering was due to God’s judgment of David’s sin, but it does disprove Bridge’s statement that God never explains (128).

In the New Testament, James 1:2-4 also argue against Bridge’s claim. These verses tell us to count it all joy when we encounter various trials. We are to count it all joy because the testing our faith produces endurance and leads to spiritual maturity. These verses may not detail specifics but they do tell what God does and why. God sends trials into our lives to build our endurance and make us spiritually mature.

Heb. 12:1-11 is another passage that confirms that God does reveal to us the “what” and the “why” of suffering. Admittedly, it is not specific in details, but it does show that God disciplines us because he loves us and intends that we share his holiness. In the context of Hebrews, God’s discipline was essentially in the form of persecution and suffering the recipients experienced due to their decision to follow Christ. For us, discipline may come in different forms and reasons but it serves the same purpose.

The three passages just reviewed demonstrate that God does indeed choose to tell us what he is doing and why in regards to suffering. Yes, God is often silent on specifics. However, unlike Job, no New Testament believer has to wonder what God is doing when trials and adversity enter their life. God in his perfect wisdom and love is transforming them into the image of Jesus Christ.

In spite of this lone disagreement with Bridges, Trusting God is a very edifying book that recovers a truth that many in the modern church seemingly have forgotten. God is sovereign! The world is not out of control and God is not up in heaven wringing his hands. As Bridges so aptly writes, God wisely and lovingly guides all things to their appointed end. Nothing or no one can stop His plan. If more Christians really believed and lived out the implications of God’s sovereignty, our churches would be vastly different. They would not be peppered with stressed out, anxious, complaining Christians seeking relief through antidepressants or various idols that appeal to fleshly lusts. Instead, they would be seeking help from the only one who can truly help them, God Almighty.

Another important corrective for modern church is on page 52 of Trusting God. Bridges says, “Trusting God is not a matter of feelings but my will.” Too many in today’s body of Christ today are living by their feelings rather than by God’s truth. They falsely assume that they are never supposed to experience unhappiness, depression or suffer. When adversity strikes, they run back and forth looking for relief rather than clinging to the truth of God’s sovereignty and trusting him for the grace to endure and to grow. Yes, these dear brethren need a strong dose of Trusting God.

As the book’s title communicates, Bridges writes mainly about trusting God in the midst of adversity, but he also gives a timely warning about trusting God in the midst of prosperity (215-219). To summarize, Bridges says that as difficult as it is to trust God in adversity, it can be equally or more difficult to trust him in times of prosperity. The reason for this difficulty is that in seasons of prosperity we are often tempted to value life’s blessings over the one who provides the blessings. Bridges appropriately notes that the nation of Israel fell into this trap repeatedly in the Old Testament. Of course, the ultimate danger in all this is that we can turn the blessings of God into idols. Unfortunately, this has too often been the case in American church, which has experienced an unprecedented period of prosperity in Christianity’s history. We would do well to heed Bridges’ warning, both individually and corporately.

I first read Trusting God in 1990 in a period of overwhelming adversity. During this time, my first wife Melinda, who has since gone to be with Lord, was chronically ill and confined to a wheelchair. I resigned what had been a difficult and draining pastorate to care for her. To top it all off, someone burglarized our apartment and a short time later, someone else stole our car. All of this was wedged in between long hospital stays for Melinda who suffered from one complication after another.

Trusting God was healing balm to my weary soul. Bridges’ book helped me to understand what God was doing in our lives and why he was doing it. It helped me to see that God was not angry with my family and me, and that there was indeed a good purpose for all the adversity. God’s sovereignty, wisdom and love were at work making us more like Jesus. Yes, the suffering was painful, “but afterwards it yielded the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11d). Every Christian should read Trusting God; they will need its medicine at some point in their lives.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Brian Edwards’ book Shall We Dance addresses a very important question facing the contemporary church. How should the contemporary church worship and evangelize? Edwards explains that we can divide Christians into two camps on this question. One camp has embraced and promoted dance and drama in their practice of worship and evangelism. They have done so because they sincerely believe that dance and drama add new life to these vital functions of the church. In contrast, the other camp has viewed dance and drama as worldly alternatives to true biblical and God-centered worship and evangelism.

Edwards definitely fits in the second camp and so do I. His arguments are clear, convincing and most important, Biblically correct. He examines the practice of dance and drama in worship and evangelism from three different, but complementary angles. Edwards reviews their use historically, biblically and practically. I will attempt to summarize briefly and comment on his arguments.

Historically, the early church rejected dance and drama because of its pagan religious roots and blatant immorality. Drama and dance in the first few centuries of the early church were vile indeed. All the early church fathers agreed that they had no place in the life of a Christian, not to mention worship. Cyprian expressed the majority opinion when he said, “Scripture forbids gazing upon what it forbids to be done.” Modern Christians would do well to heed Cyprian’s words regarding television and movie viewing!

Unfortunately, as the church entered the Middle Ages it was filled with sin and corruption. Much of this was due to Constantine making Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. As the Empire forced pagans into the church, they brought the trappings of their pagan worship with them. This led to a long period of spiritual decline. It was during this period that they introduced dance and drama into the church. Edwards astutely observes that a period of spiritual decline always precedes the introduction of dance and drama into the church’s worship. In my opinion, the historical facts bear witness to his conclusion.

Some have claimed that reintroducing dance and drama into the contemporary church is essentially reclaiming what the church lost during the Middle Ages. Obviously they have failed to interpret the events of church history correctly. For the church to reintroduce dance and drama into its practice of worship and evangelism is to acknowledge it is in a state of spiritual decline!

After the darkness of the Middle Ages, the early reformers like Groot, Hus, Wycliffe and Tyndale came onto the scene of Christianity. They had little time for drama or dancing because they were to busy trying to stay alive! Their primary response to these activities was to condemn their practice. As Edwards aptly points out that the early reformers reintroduced preaching into the church not plays!

In contrast to the early reformers, later reformers began to use plays for their purposes. The truth is they were used mainly as weapons to attack the Catholics and their doctrine. The Catholics returned the favor. In England, this feud between the Protestants and the Catholics led to intervention by the monarchy. This intervention resulted in secularization and rapid moral decline of drama.

England’s Puritans were not unlike the early reformers in their response to drama. They generally rejected drama that was immoral but tolerated it if it was good. Of course, it must be stated that there was some disagreement among them. Some Puritans totally rejected plays of any kind. Puritans also loved good music and enjoyed proper dancing. It should be emphasized that despite how they felt about drama and dancing, these were never a part of their worship and evangelism practices in the church.

The successors to the Puritans were the evangelicals. Like the Puritans, they were against plays because of their immorality. In addition, they saw them as mere entertainment lacking any power to transform people’s lives. Charles Spurgeon, a Victorian evangelical and Baptist preacher, considered dancing and drama to be a severe hindrance to spiritual life. His view adequately reflects that of most Victorian evangelicals.

This concludes my summary of Edwards’ historical argument against drama and dancing in the church. This brief survey of history reveals a couple of important facts. First, it’s only during times of spiritual decline that the church has resorted to drama and dancing in worship and evangelism. Second, many Christians have also excluded these activities from their personal lives because they recognize them as hindrances to spiritual life. These facts show there is really no historical basis for using drama in the worship of the contemporary church. In my estimation, when we introduce these into our practice of worship and evangelism it simply shows our ignorance of church history.

Edwards’ second and most significant argument against the use of drama and dance in worship was the Biblical argument. It’s the most significant argument because as New Testament Christians we believe that the Scriptures are our final authority in faith in practice. This definitely applies to how we practice worship and evangelism in the church.

Is there any evidence in the Scriptures that dance should be a part of worship? Some Christians would say there is. Edwards demonstrates that these adherents of dance cannot prove their position from the Scriptures. After my own review of the Scriptures, I would have to agree with his conclusions.

When one examines the New Testament there is absolutely no evidence or support for dancing in worship. In fact, dancing is mentioned only five times in the entire New Testament. Two of those verses, Matt.14:6 and Mark 6:22, talk about Herodias lewd dance that led to the death of John the Baptist. The other three verses, Matt. 11:17, Luke 7:32 and Luke 15:25, are used by Jesus in sermon illustrations.

The Old Testament contains twenty references to dancing. We can divide these references into five categories. Our first category would be the victory dance, which was done in response to a military victory over an enemy. This is the kind of dance described in Ex. 15:20, Judges 11:34 and 1 Sam. 18:6-7. A second category would be the festival dance. This is what was apparently taking place in Judges 21:21-23. A third category would be dance in pagan worship. We see this illustrated in Exodus 32:19 and 1 Kings 18:26. The fourth category is dancing in Hebrew poetry and prophecy. It is usually used to illustrate joy after a period of sorrow or judgement. The final category is David’s dance. This is the category that dance adherents believe gives them their strongest Scriptural support. The problem is they have not done the hard work of Biblical exegesis to support their claim. David’s dance was as Edwards put it, “ . . . exceptional; it was not David’s customary way of worship. The truth of the matter is David’s dance was a single moment of enthusiastic celebration.

In summary, there is no support for dancing in worship anywhere in the Scriptures! If God had wanted us to dance in worship He would have made it clear in His Word. God went to great lengths in the Old Testament to teach His people how to approach and worship Him. Dancing was not a component of that teaching. This also is true of New Testament teaching on worship.

Edwards’ conclusions about the Scriptural evidence for dance are mirrored when it comes to drama. The New Testament says absolutely nothing about drama. Neither does the Old Testament. Some would attempt to use figures of speech like parables to make a case for it. In reality, figures of speech do not meet Edwards’ or anyone else’s definition of drama. Other adherents of drama attempt to claim that symbolic acts like Passover, The Lord’s Supper and baptism make a case for drama. Again, these symbolic acts do not meet any thinking person’s definition of drama. Furthermore, their purpose is not to reenact but to remember and identify. The primary scriptural ground that adherents cling to for drama in worship is the Old Testament Prophets. They claim that the symbolic actions of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel give support to their position. Clearly, as previously stated, there is a vast difference between symbolic action and drama. The crucial point is that we can make no case for drama from the Scriptures. My belief is if the Scriptures do not teach it then we should not be doing it!

Edwards’ third argument against drama and dancing in worship was the practical argument. In his practical argument, he gave seven reasons why contemporary Christians should not introduce dance and drama into the churches’ worship. First, Edwards said that dance and drama reflect the worst of society’s standards. I would have to agree. Church history, modern television, and the movie and music industries all serve to support his conclusions.

The second practical reason Edwards gave against dance and drama in worship was that they often trivialize the serious. Edwards said, “ Dance and drama are fundamentally entertainment.” Therefore it is easy to trivialize serious subjects like Christ’s suffering and death.

Another practical reason Edwards gave against dance and drama was they avoid direct or personal confrontation. He rightly pointed out that the primary means of delivering the gospel in the New Testament was public preaching and personal witnessing. These require personal contact. The gospel by nature is a message that requires confrontation and demands a response. Drama and dancing definitely fall short in this regard.

The next two practical reasons Edwards gave in opposition to drama and dance are closely related. He said they must be interpreted and that they are not the most effective means of communication. Again, I would have to agree with his conclusions. Dance and drama always are open to individual interpretation. If we want people to get the correct or intended meaning, we have to explain it to them. If we have to explain it to them then why not simply preach the truth the way the Scriptures command?

Edwards’ sixth practical reason for not allowing dance and drama in worship is that they are nothing more than an escape from reality. This is closely related to the idea they are entertainment. Unfortunately, the majority of people today use entertainment as an escape. We in America call it vegetating. This is the last thing we want people today when they come to worship! True worship is focusing on God and responding to Him. You cannot do that while vegetating!

Edwards’ final practical reason against dance and drama in worship was they are open to sensual responses. I must admit this reason speaks loud and clear to me. I come to church to worship God not to experience sexual temptation. Unfortunately, the way some women dress today makes that difficult. Having young ladies dancing around in leotards would make it a hundred times more difficult! No thank you!

The practical reasons against dance and drama in worship and evangelism are powerful. Coupled with the historical and Biblical arguments they slam the door shut on the use of dance and drama in the church’s worship and evangelism. Edwards also does a fair job of exposing the danger of dance and drama from a personal perspective. He says these activities are not wrong per se but they have the easy potential for misuse. My experience and observation would lead me to agree completely!

Edwards ends Shall We Dance by declaring that preaching is the best way to do worship and evangelism in the contemporary church. He proves his point both historically and scripturally. The early church, the reformers, the Puritans, and the evangelicals all believed that preaching was the best way to worship and evangelize. Early church preaching turned the world upside down. The preaching of the reformers led society and the church out of the dark ages. Evangelical preaching sparked revival on two continents. History clearly shows that God blesses and uses preaching.

The Scriptural arguments for biblical preaching in the New Testament are overwhelming. Edwards does a fair job of presenting them. Matthew 28:19-20 would be enough evidence for preaching by itself. Each gospel has similar exhortations. In addition, the book of Acts is the historical account of the early church preaching the gospel publicly and privately. Acts contains thirty-six references to preaching and it is filled with sermons and testimonies. Also, the epistles are filled with exhortations to preach and witness. My favorite exhortation is in 2 Tim. 4:2, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.”

In short, Shall We Dance is an important book that every preacher and worship leader should read. Amazingly, I found little in this book to disagree with! It does an excellent job of explaining why preaching should be central to our practice of worship and evangelism. I would heartily recommend reading the last two chapters of this book on a regular basis. They provide tremendous encouragement and motivation for those who are committed to preaching the Word!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Power Encounters: A Book Review

Those who practice biblical counseling know David Powlison well. He is eminently qualified to write a book on spiritual warfare because he has a reputation for sound hermeneutics, exegesis and application. Powlison’s books on various aspects of biblical counseling exhibit his belief in the sufficiency of Scripture for every aspect of the Christian life. Power Encounters is no different.

Power Encounters is a book that seeks to correct many of the modern church’s errors in the realm of spiritual warfare. It definitely accomplishes its purpose. David Powlison has thoroughly and graciously exposed and corrected the unsound hermeneutics that is the foundation of most contemporary teaching on spiritual warfare. Unfortunately, the shelves at Christian bookstores are full of this flawed and even dangerous teaching. It is too bad Powlison’s book is out of print, because it is one of the few available on the subject that is theologically, hermeneutically and practically sound.

In the first chapter of Power Encounters, Powlison explains the necessity of reclaiming spiritual warfare from well-meaning Christians who have strayed from the truth. Powlison sets the groundwork for a careful, scriptural evaluation of this movement and promises a more biblical view.

The second chapter compares the contemporary deliverance movement, which Powlison labels EMM, an acronym for “ekballistic” mode of ministry, with the classical mode of spiritual warfare. “Ekballistic” is a term Powlison created from the Greek word ĕkballō, which means to “cast out.” EMM practitioners base their methodology on the idea that demons, like lust, rage and rebellion dwell in the human heart and that they can get rid of them. In contrast, Powlison explains that the classic mode of spiritual warfare depends upon provisions such as God’s protection, his word, prayer, repentance and obedience for deliverance.

Chapters three through eight of Power Encounter comprise a section where Powlison examines what the Bible actually teaches about spiritual warfare. He looks closely at key passages in the Old Testament, the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. Powlison employs sound hermeneutical principles to unpack the biblical truth. He demonstrates that the fundamental mistake EMM advocates make is resorting to proof texting rather than interpreting Scripture in its context. Also, rather than letting the text speak for itself, they read their own theological conclusions into the text.

Chapter nine takes the biblical principles that Powlison uncovered in preceding chapters and skillfully applies them to eight specific questions concerning EMM. Then in the final chapter, Powlison illustrates the classical mode of spiritual warfare through two case studies. In both cases, EMM failed, but when the individuals faithfully practiced classic mode spiritual warfare, they grew in grace and began to experience real victory for the first time in their Christian lives.

Powlison does a masterful job of exposing the serious flaws in the contemporary deliverance movement in Power Encounters. Yet his manner is gracious and his tone irenic and non-combative. Clearly, his aim is to humbly expose and correct error, while at the same time edifying the body of Christ. It is obvious that Powlison does not view those immersed in the contemporary deliverance ministry as foes, but as erring brothers whom he loves and shares a common goal. Both seek to deliver God’s people from the enemy, but Powlison’s way is biblical.

The brief rundown Powlison provides describing the history, players and strengths of the contemporary deliverance movement in chapter two is helpful. One would be wise to consider how the different players’ theological systems influence their variation of EMM. Sadly, but all too typical, one of the key influences in the contemporary deliverance movement is actually a novelist and not a theologian. Novelist Frank Peretti has wrongly influenced countless Christians’ views on spiritual warfare over the last twenty-plus years.

Unfortunately, poor hermeneutics, as evidenced in EMM and Peretti’s novels, is epidemic in the contemporary church. In twenty-two years of ministry, I have read a shelf full of books on spiritual warfare from numerous theological perspectives, and all were essentially based on EMM. Without exception, those books failed to remain true to the Scriptures and propagated ideas and practices that were inherently unbiblical. In every case, I could trace these unbiblical ideas and practices to the fact that the books’ authors were not doing proper hermeneutics, which led to their espousing bad theology and practice.

In contrast, Powlison bases his scriptural arguments in Power Encounters on sound principles of biblical interpretation and exegesis. He looks at relevant passages in both the Old and New Testaments, and does a thorough but succinct job of unpacking them. His conclusions are well stated, and supportive of his proposition that classical spiritual warfare is indeed the biblical mode of warfare. In fact, after reading Powlison’s scriptural arguments, one cannot help but conclude that EMM’s problems are fundamentally a matter of bad hermeneutics, which have resulted in unscriptural theology and practice.

Powlison’s hermeneutical skills are especially evident on page 128 where he unpacks two EMM, proof texts, Eph. 4:27 and 1 Cor. 10:4. He rightly interprets Eph. 4:27 when he states that this verse is not about the devil gaining a foothold in the life of an individual, but about him gaining the opportunity to bring division in the body of Christ through unresolved anger. And then in unpacking 1 Cor. 10:4 in its context, Powlison correctly points out that this text is not about strongholds in the life of an individual, but about the stronghold of false teaching in the Corinthian church. False teaching which the apostle Paul was seeking to destroy with the truth of the gospel. I cannot begin to count number of sermons, Bible studies, books, commentaries and prayers I have observed where these two Scriptures have been misinterpreted and misused. Powlison’s careful hermeneutics are refreshing indeed.

One of the critical theological points that Powlison makes is in chapter five, where he examines Jesus’ ministry in the Synoptic Gospels. In this examination, he unpacks the difference between situational evil and moral evil. He explains that situational evil includes aspects of life like suffering, hardship, death and demonization. These aspects are situational because they are the result of external circumstances. In contrast, moral evil is due to the wickedness that resides in the human heart. Powlison demonstrates that Jesus dealt with the situational evil of demonization by casting out the demons, but he dealt with moral evil by calling people to repentance and faith in himself as Messiah and Lord. This point is critical because it destroys the primary scriptural and theological basis which EMM adherents claim for their practice of spiritual warfare.

In addition to dealing with hermeneutical and theological issues, Power Encounters makes a couple of important points about EMM that we dare not miss in chapter nine. A significant point that grabbed my attention was that Christians who have turned to psychology and those who have turned to EMM have much in common. Each has turned away from the classic spiritual warfare and embraced a system that cannot help them. Psychology redefines sin and EMM blames it on evil spirits. Both of these enable one to avoid responsibility for sin. Therefore, there is no confession or repentance, just continuing bondage to sin and ignorance concerning the sufficiency of Scripture to deliver and heal.

Another critical point that Powlison makes in chapter 9 is in response to a question; If EMM is unbiblical, then why have some experienced success with it? Powlison’s short answer is the grace of God. His long answer is that God will honor that in EMM which is true, and will grant grace and deliverance to someone who has a truly repentant heart. I know this to be true from my own experience. Many years ago, under the influence and direction of EMM books, I sought deliverance from a particular besetting sin. The Lord in his mercy delivered me, even though I was theologically confused and misinformed.

Powlison’s Power Encounters is a book with which I am highly impressed and will recommend without reservation. Frankly, it is the best the book I have ever read on the topic of spiritual warfare. Every pastor and biblical counselor should read it. I wish I had read the book in 1995 when it first came out. Reading it would have saved me from learning many of its truths the hard way. My hope is Power Encounters will soon be reprinted so many others in the body of Christ will have the opportunity to be edified by it.