Monthly Archives: March 2015

Discerning Satan’s Work: Three Clues

dynamicsSpiritual renewal is a daily process with daily setbacks. And as C.S. Lewis imaginatively reminded us (Screwtape Letters), the Biblical worldview includes a realm of activity beyond physical awareness, from which many of those setbacks originate.

The lineage of human brokenness is mixed. Sin derives from many sources. Envy and arrogance from within led Eve to eat the fruit. Yet as the story goes it was clearly the serpent that lured her in. But surely Adam’s absence had something to do with her transgression as well. As with Eve, so with us.  Sin springs from many fountains.

The flesh, the world, and the devil conspire to preclude our progress in being transformed to look more and more like Jesus in the way we live. While Christians are usually somewhat sensitive to the presence of personal sin (both acts and condition, e.g. 1 John 1:5-10), and also alert to the allures of the world (1 John 2:15-17), there seems to be less perceptiveness regarding the ways of the devil (1 John 3:8-11).

Paul expressed concern for the church in Corinth regarding this potential imperceptiveness of the devil’s work, “…so that we would not be outwitted by Satan: for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:11).

I recently finished reading Renewal As a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth by Richard Lovelace, which emphasizes our need for awareness of Satan’s role in our downfalls. Lovelace brings a balanced approach, neither attributing all sin to the devil nor ignoring the devil’s influence. Lovelace highlights three “clues” for discerning the devil’s work, calling them the “Stratagems of Darkness.”

  1. Temptation: Steering God’s children into forms of sin which are in obvious conformity to the world. “Temptation is not his most dangerous technique with believers, for they cannot be led away from Christ into damnation.” Nonetheless, sin can sideline believers, both through discouragement and discrediting.
  2. Accusation: There is no activity which is more characteristic of the devil (106). How do we become sensitized to spiritual conflict? How do we know when we are up against the devil? Based on the situation in 2 Corinthians 2, where believers are being tempted toward mutual resentment and unhealed relationships due to lack of forgiveness, Lovelace suggests that there are two ways in which the devil normally works: “dividing the body of Christ and using unhealed resentment as a gun emplacement for firing accusations” (153). He goes on to say, “Whenever we find accusation dominating our minds or the minds of others, especially with an apparent admixture of lies, we may be dealing with the devil” (153).
  3. Lying: Jesus said of the devil, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). “Every part of the church…shows some marks of the devil’s ability to lead us into believing falsehood, causing us to ignore or doubt biblical truth” (108). There are those doctrines which directly contradict biblical teaching, and yet appeal to human arrogance. But there are also innovative philosophies which have a distinct biblical “ring” to them, and yet subtly subvert the teachings of Jesus.

There is one further “clue” to be aware of. Lovelace asks “How can we tell that we are dealing with demonic agents when many of their characteristic strategies employ the temptations, doubts, lies and slanders common to the flesh and the world?” (153).

There is a simple answer to this question. The powers of darkness do not afflict us aimlessly. There is usually design in their operations, and the design centers on blocking the expansion of the Messianic kingdom. Much of our discernment of Satanic powers come as we follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance in mission and ministry. As we begin initiatives for the kingdom, events will turn in a direction precisely calculated to block our efforts….If all of this comes with an especially disabling power behind it, Satan is probably involved.

If you feel the onslaught of temptations, accusations and lies, remember this: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 1:8). Or as Lovelace put it, “To topple the power structure created by the interlocking operation of the flesh, the world and the devil, we need a liberator of cosmic dimensions and a Messianic people fully enlightened concerning the difficulty and the supernatural grandeur of the work yet to be done.”

And in addition to the Messiah’s conquering/delivering achievements (Heb 2:14-18), we must remember that we also have the Holy Spirit’s enabling achievement, as Paul directs in Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The Holy Spirit is the active agency by which the remaining sin in us will be killed.

But to the extent that we are deficient in understanding Satan’s role in influencing, and the Spirit’s role in killing sin, to that extent we will be deficient in the fight and thus flagging in faith and joy.

So go forth and conquer in the confidence of the Messiah and the power of the Spirit.

 

Resources for further consideration:

Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, Richard Lovelace. The original work, from which Renewal As a Way of Life is distilled. More historical/theological context.

The Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin, Kris Lundgaard. Drawn heavily from the teaching of John Owen, but much briefer and easier to read.

Overcoming Sin and TemptationJohn Owen. The evangelical standard from which so many others take their cues.

Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis. The classic masterpiece that imagines an expert demon who writes to his novice nephew, instructing him on best methods of tempting humans.

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What Is Discipling?

Print“Discipling is deliberately doing spiritual good to someone else so that they will be more like Christ.”

So says Mark Dever in “Presenting Them Perfect: What It Means To Disciple Others” (part two in a five-part series on discipling). Below are notes on this sermon from Colossians 1:28-29 which says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

1. What does it mean to disciple others?

At its core discipling is teaching. Less like a classroom and more like an apprenticeship at a job. Perhaps even more like what our dads and moms have been to us: teaching both facts, but also teaching how to live.

Very intentional. Means picking this person and not that person. There are more people to spend time with than you have time to spend. So you have to make a decision. Who needs the help? Who wants the help (knowing they need it)? Are you able practically to make it happen?

May not always be clear who is the teachers and who is the student. Discipling relationships are always two-way: from one to the other and back again (Col 3:16 – “admonish one another”).

To disciple is to help someone live each day in light of the final day.

Our role in discipling: Intense involvement combined with humble openhandedness. Intense involvement can make us too concerned about our own input. Humble openhandedness reminds us this is God’s work not ours. For his glory and not for the satisfaction we might get out of it.

2. Who are you deliberately loving like this through discipling?

This is what the church is for. So find someone in the congregation who may benefit from a relationship with you. Intentionally invest in their spiritual good.

3. Objections to discipling

Concern 1: This discipler is not ideal. (I wanted an older woman, not a woman just merely older than meAnswer: Neither are you. The more humble you are, the more surprised you’ll be at the wisdom of others

Concern 2: I’m concerned this will undermine other good authority. Answer: Discipling done well encourages submission

Concern 3: This whole thing seems self-centered and prideful. Answer: This only means to follow someone else as they follow Christ.

Concern 4: Isn’t this pushy and imposing? Answer: No, because this is a relationship voluntary on both sides.

Concern 5: I don’t need this. Answer: That’s lone ranger Christianity. But in contrast Jesus set up the local church. Calling us to make his commands to love very real by loving particular people. Christianity is personal but it is not private. God is the only one who doesn’t need to be taught.

Concern 6: This is just for extroverts. Answer: No. This is for all Christians.

Concern 7: I can’t disciple – I’m too imperfect and make too many mistakes. Answer: Discipling is sharing what you do know with love, not sharing what you don’t know. Begin simply by sharing the gospel. Proceed simply by asking questions, climbing into their lives. Anyone truly following Christ can disciple.

Conclusion

Discipling is part of discipleship, not an optional extra to following Jesus.

Think about your approach to church: do you come just wondering when someone else is going to disciple you, or do you come prepared to contribute the progress of others in faith?

What do you mean by saying that you are following Christ, who laid down his life for other, if you are not helping others to follow Christ? How are you following him?

Resurrection: 7 Christian Distinctives

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Titian; Polyptych of the Resurrection – Santi Nazaro e Celso, Brescia

N.T. Wright has thankfully distilled his monumental work The Resurrection of the Son of God into a briefer volume (295 pages instead of 738), including additional concerns. He speaks not only about the resurrection, but also about “the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it” (xi). Surprised by Hope defends the heritage of Easter and unfolds the hope of Easter for the present and future life.

In looking forward to celebrating Easter in less than a month, I’ve been encouraged reading Wright’s work. Though I couldn’t endorse his views on justification, I have appreciated his careful study of resurrection in its historical and biblical settings.

Chapter 3 of Surprised by Hope presents the historical setting of the early Christian hope, beginning with views of resurrection held by ancient paganism and Judaism.

For ancient pagans, death was all-powerful. No one could escape its clutches let alone return from it. When ancient pagans spoke of resurrection (to deny it), they did not simply mean “life after death.” Rather, resurrection in the pagan frame was used to denote “new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be.”

For the ancient Jewish world there are two general categories of understanding resurrection. Some agreed with the pagans in denial of any kind of future life. The Saducees are famous for this position. Others believed in an eventual resurrection. On the last day, all the people of God would be given new bodies all at once. When Martha was coming to grips with the death of Lazarus, she said to Jesus, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn 11:24). This was the Jewish conception of resurrection.

The teaching that emerged in early Christian congregations reflected this Jewish background, yet offered distinctive “mutations” as Wright calls them. “The Early Christian belief in hope beyond death belongs demonstrably on the Jewish, not the pagan, map…but in seven significant ways this Jewish hope underwent remarkable modifications.” Wright gives seven distinctively Christian modifications.

  1. Unanimity of Belief: Despite diverse Jewish and pagan backgrounds, Christians did not hold a spectrum of belief about life beyond death. Not until the late second century did the Gnostic idea emerge, namely, the idea of a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future. But at first, there was unanimity. “For almost all of the first two centuries, resurrection in the traditional sense holds not just center stage, but the whole stage.”
  2. Circumference to Center: In Second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important. But in early Christianity resurrection moved from the circumference to the center. “Take away the stories of Jesus’s birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament.”
  3. Resurrection Bodies: In Judaism it is almost always left quite vague as to what sort of body the resurrected will possess. But from the start, early Christians believed that the new body will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties (based on 1 Corinthians 15, the “newness” is primarily that whereas the old body is corruptible, the new body will be incorruptible).
  4. The Resurrection Split Into Two: For first-century Jews, the idea of resurrection was that it would be a large scale event happening to all God’s people as part of the sudden event in which God’s kingdom would finally come on earth as in heaven. But what becomes the central feature of Christianity is the belief that the “mode of this inauguration” consisted in the resurrection itself happening to one person in the middle of history in advance of it’s great final occurrence, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history. An initial resurrection as a guarantee of a second and final resurrection.
  5. Collaborative Eschatology: Because resurrection was inaugurated with Jesus but not completed until the end, Christians believed that God called them to work with him in the power of the Spirit to implement the achievement of Jesus in anticipation of the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. “If Jesus was God’s-future-arrived-in-the-present, then those who belonged to Jesus were charged with transforming the present in the light of that future.”
  6. Metaphorical Use of Resurrection: When resurrection is used metaphorically in Judaism, it refers to the restoration of Israel. But Christianity replaces this with a new metaphorical meaning: resurrection as referring to baptism (e.g. Romans 6:1-5), and resurrection as referring to the new life of strenuous ethical obedience enabled by the Holy Spirit (e.g Romans 6:6-14).
  7. Resurrection and Messiahship: Nobody in Judaism expected the Messiah to die, and therefore nobody imagined him rising from the dead. Judaism understood the Messiah to be the one who would overthrow pagan government and restore God’s justice. Thus, for Judaism, the crucifixion confirmed the impossibility of Jesus being the Messiah. Yet Christians came to affirm that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.

Wright notes that these mutations from Jewish to Christian understanding of resurrection demand a historical explanation. Why did these modifications occur? And he goes on to present an historical account of that first Easter Day.

But these seven points deserve contemplation as they represent the development of the Christian understanding of resurrection, which is the epicenter of our faith as Paul reminds the Corinthians.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

The Golden Rule Applied to Prayer

Prayer is not the primary duty. The greatest command is not, “Pray to God.” Rather the greatest command is “Love God wholeheartedly.” Prayer, then, is simply a reflection of this prior duty working itself out. Because I love God, I communicate to him my love for him and my need of him. This is the essence of prayer: loving God.

Likewise the second great command is not, “Pray for your neighbor.” Rather, the command is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet one of the clearest reflections of this love is our praying on behalf of one another. Paul states the Golden Rule in fresh terms, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Again, let this principle be applied to our prayers. Our prayer should be guided not by our own interest, but by the interests of others.prayer together

Such praying directed toward the needs and interest of others is most often called intercession, and this type of prayer is pervasive in the Bible, even when it doesn’t go by that title.

Jesus prays for Peter, “Satan has demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32). And Jesus prays no doubt similarly for all who follow him: “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).

These two passages (Luke 22 and Hebrews 7) shed light on one another. Jesus is able to save completely, because he always lives to make intercession. And his making intercession has a protective effect regarding our faith. At those points where we may be weakest in faith—where Satan is most likely to launch his offensive—it is at those points that Christ makes intercession for us. His prayer for us is that our faith would hold strong against the onslaught of Satan’s advance.

His praying is the means; his saving is the end.

Thus if we want to be like Jesus in our praying, then we should pray for others. And as we pray for others, our prayers should be targeting those areas in which they may be weak in faith. As we are aware of their characteristic besetting sins, tension-filled relationships, despair-inducing circumstances, we should target our prayers at their maintenance of faith through these things.

Tim Keller makes this observation about the prayers of the apostle Paul: “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances” (Prayer, 20). Rather than praying for change in circumstances, Paul prays that their faith in God and love for God would grow through suffering, not apart from it.

There is no better way to love a brother or sister in Christ than to make intercession for them, specifically that their faith would not fail when under assault.

Giving God Arguments

J.I. Packer says, “Hallowed be your name…is the basic petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the global ideal and desire that all the other petitions are actually spelling out and specifying in one way or another” (Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight). Thus, all prayer is really a matter of reasoning with God as to how we would like to see his name honored and exalted (“hallowed”). Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) called this giving God arguments:

Our praying…should consist of arguments for God’s glory and our happiness: not that arguments move God to do that which he is not willing of himself to do for us…as though the infinitely wise God needed information, or the infinitely loving God needed persuasion, but it is for strengthening our faith in him. All the prayers of Scripture you will find to be reasoning with God, not a multitude of words heaped together; and the design of the promises is to furnish us with a strength of reason in this case: Dan 9:16, “Now according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thy anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem.” He [Daniel] pleads God’s righteousness in his promise of the set time of deliverance; after he had settled his heart in a full belief of the promise of deliverance, he shows God’s own words to him. The arguments [in this and all biblical prayers] you will find drawn from the covenant in general, or some promise in particular, or some attribute of God, or the glory of God.”

(Charnock, Works, 4.8)

Billy Graham: America’s Pastor

Billy Graham may have addressed more people face-to-face than anyone else in history, with the possible exception of Pope John Paul II.[1] By the numbers, his effectiveness was spectacular. He addressed face-to-face with the gospel more than 210 million people spanning over 185 countries in 417 crusades over nearly sixty years.[2] Distinguished historian Martin Marty said that the Mt. Rushmore of Protestant American shapers includes Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham.[3] And George H. W. Bush had called him “America’s pastor.”[4] Not bad for a farm boy who got his start in the rural piedmont region of North Carolina.

And few people could be more suited to write a biography on Graham than Grant Wacker, the Gilbert T. Rowe professor of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School. I was introduced to Wacker through his work on early Pentecostals and American culture, Heaven Below. Wacker’s outstanding new biography on Graham is scholarly and disciplined, “an interpretation rather than a strictly chronological account” (5). He portrays Graham as one of the architects of new evangelicalism (perhaps the primary) and as the face of American religion in the public square.

Wacker says his book is propelled by three questions:

  1. How did Graham become the “least colorful and most powerful preacher in America”?
  2. How did he help expand traditional evangelical rhetoric into the moral vocabulary that millions of American used to make sense of both their private and their public experiences?
  3. How did he help mold the culture that created him and that he created? How did he speak both for and to modern America?

To answer these three questions, Wacker proposes one answer which is the core of his book:

From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes.

I found Wacker to be extremely fair at every turn, in interpreting the life and significance of a man who would be easy to malign (as did Reinhold Niebuhr) or divinize (as have many biographers). Wacker critiques the crusades as theatrical (140), noting that they “embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of American evangelicalism at its most efficient best” (151). Yet he portrays Graham as a man of deep integrity, guilty of little more than “flashes of vanity.”

Wacker’s historical analysis would make it easy to criticize Graham as a naive showman, employing entrepreneurial vision for self-aggrandizement. And yet Graham’s steady faithfulness to the gospel message and his persistent moral integrity should give us pause at such uncharitable assessments.

Graham’s critics repeatedly objected that his gospel had no bite. He called them to Christ but did not expect them to change in any fundamental way….

[But] there is danger in overthinking the data… Hundreds of thousands–perhaps millions–of Americans attested that Graham had played a pivotal role in their journeys. Other pastors had their jobs. He had his. It was to nurture the private life of a public faith.

Whether you are a Graham critic or fan, you will appreciate Wacker’s far-reaching and insightful analysis of American culture, religious culture in particular, and Billy Graham’s role in shaping it.

[1] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, Mass: Bellknap Press, 2014), 21.

[2] These numbers are generally agreed upon with slight variation. This particular set of numbers comes from Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the Whitehouse (New York: Center Street, 2007), vii. But the biography of Graham on the BGEA website provides similar data, available at http://billygraham.org/about/biographies/billy-graham/.

[3] Martin E. Marty, “Billy Graham Taught Christians New Ways of Being in the World” (September 30, 2013), Martin Marty Center, University of Chicago Divinity School, accessed January 8, 2015, https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/billy-graham-taught-christians-new-ways-being-world-martin-e-marty.

[4] George H. W. Bush, quoted without direct citation in David Aikman, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 234.