B. B. Warfield’s Avalanche of Inspiration

warfielddrawingI recently finished reading B. B. Warfield’s classic The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. My dad actually gave me the copy from his own library, which he purchased just after its sixth printing in 1970. I’ve often heard the book cited, but now it was time for me to read it. I usually do my reading between 5:00-8:00am, so Warfield was like a strong shot of caffeine for me each morning. Over breakfast I would tell my wife what I had read from Brain Blowing Warfield that morning. He blew my mind.

But one of the most memorable parts of the book for me (there were many) was his illustration of the quantity of textual evidence for the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible speaks all over of it’s own inerrancy. In the words of Jesus, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). To describe the ubiquity of textual evidence, Warfield uses the illustration of an avalanche. Here it is…enjoy:

But no grosser misconception could be conceived than that the Scriptures bear witness to their own plenary inspiration in these outstanding texts alone. These are but the culminating passages of a pervasive testimony to the divine character of Scripture, which fills the whole New Testament; and which includes not only such direct assertions of divinity and infallibility for Scripture as these, but, along with them, an endless variety of expressions of confidence in, and phenomena of use of, Scripture which are irresistible in their teaching when it is once fairly apprehended.

The induction must be broad enough to embrace, and give their full weight to, a great variety of such facts as these: the lofty titles which are given to Scripture, and by which it is cited, such as “Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” even that almost awful title, “the Oracles of God”; the significant formulæ by which it is quoted, “It is written,” “It is spoken,” “It says,” “God says”; such modes of adducing it as betray that to the writer “Scripture says” is equivalent to “God says,” and even its narrative parts are conceived as direct utterances of God; the attribution to Scripture, as such, of divine qualities and acts, as in such phrases as “the Scriptures foresaw”; the ascription of the Scriptures, in whole or in their several parts as occasionally adduced, to the Holy Spirit as their author, while the human writers are treated as merely his media of expression; the reverence and trust shown, and the significance and authority ascribed, to the very words of Scripture; and the general attitude of entire subjection to every declaration of Scripture of whatever kind, which characterizes every line of the New Testament.

The effort to explain away the Bible’s witness to its plenary inspiration reminds one of a man standing safely in his laboratory and elaborately expounding—possibly by the aid of diagrams and mathematical formulæ—how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway and may easily be dodged by one of some presence of mind. We may fancy such an elaborate trifler’s triumph as he would analyze the avalanche into its constituent stones, and demonstrate of stone after stone that its pathway is definite, limited, and may easily be avoided. But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction. Just so we may explain away a text or two which teach plenary inspiration, to our own closet satisfaction, dealing with them each without reference to its relation to the others: but these texts of ours, again, unfortunately do not come upon us in this artificial isolation; neither are they few in number. There are scores, hundreds, of them: and they come bursting upon us in one solid mass. Explain them away? We should have to explain away the whole New Testament. What a pity it is that we cannot see and feel the avalanche of texts beneath which we may lie hopelessly buried, as clearly as we may see and feel an avalanche of stones!

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, (Philadephia; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1948), Sixth Printing 1970, 119-120.

Advertisements

Hope in God’s Kingdom Ultimately, but Embody that Kingdom Presently

DOH | Matthew-KingdomThe day after the election I noticed that my Christians friends posting on Facebook tended to highlight one of two things. Some posted reminders about God’s sovereignty and how the Christian hope is always in God, not in rulers. Others lamented what the Trump election indicates about America, and also fears about what his presidency may mean for America’s future. But these two dynamics are actually twin truths that the Christian must hold together.

The eternal throne is occupied (Revelation 4:2). There is no vacancy. Therefore, we do not trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). In God we trust, because God alone reigns forever. He is King, and that is not saying anything political, and at the same time it’s saying everything political.

And yet, God’s reign is unfulfilled. “At present we don’t yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8). He is already reigning, but the world is still broken. So while we can rejoice the eternal throne is occupied, there is still much reason for mourning the state of things here, and longing for something better. The Old Testament prophets believed God was sovereign and yet wailed over the condition of Israel.

These twin truths guide Christian thinking about our situation. And the application for the church is this:

The church both hopes in God’s kingdom ultimately, but also works to embody God’s kingdom presently.

We can’t hope in God’s kingdom later while failing to reflect the kind of reign he will bring now. If we aren’t working toward embodying the kind of kingdom he will bring, what does that say about how much we really love his kingdom?

I joked with a friend this past week that after reading Psalm 146 it looks like God plays his political cards. God votes Democrat. It was a joke, but what I mean is this. Psalm 146 says we shouldn’t trust in princes, but we should trust in God who is King. And as king, he cares for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the prisoners. The socially marginalized and voiceless. And the Democratic party has carved out an identity as the party of the marginalized. So at least that element of the Democratic identity should resonate with Christians.

At the same time God is grieved by so much of what Donald Trump stands for. The media will want to show that Donald Trump was elected by evangelicals. In one sense they are right. Exit polls showed that four out of five white evangelicals voted Trump. But, we need to prove that Donald Trump does not represent Jesus followers.

We must speak to the good and the bad in a leader or a party. As Francis Schaeffer said, we would be “cobelligerents” to both parties but not allied to either. Thabiti Anyabwile in the Washington Post yesterday said we should “celebrate what we think is good while also protecting against what we think is bad. Having a chance to appoint Supreme Court justices should not be touted as a grand, unqualified victory if we also suspect the freedoms of ethnic groups will be restricted or ethnic peoples mistreated.” Whether you voted Trump or Clinton (I didn’t vote for either major party candidate), so much of what they each stand for should leave you very disappointed. Speak to the good and the bad.

But we must also act according to the best of the policies we support. Evangelicals are often guilty of wanting legislation that reflects Christian morality (e.g. pro-life), but at the same time, not wanting to deal with all the issues behind those policies (e.g. what drive women to abortions, like racial disparities, poverty, low-education and low income). So evangelicals vote for Donald Trump because he says he’ll defend pro-life causes, and yet evangelical haven’t done a great job caring for the poor, championing racial reconciliation, etc. We are pro-life in policy. But are we good at supporting those in need of help raising the child they chose to keep? And whatever your immigration policy preferences are, how are you doing at loving refugees and immigrants in your city? What steps (even if small) have you taken to actively work against racism toward racial reconciliation?

I was talking with a pastor once who pastored back in the 1960’s when there were some blacks in town who were moving to integrate the local elementary school. Members of his church went with guns and torches to intimidate these families and the children. I asked the pastor how he responded to his members. He replied, “As their pastor I was there to point my people to Jesus, not to get into the issues with them.”

Sadly too many evangelicals are still acting like that. We want to preach Jesus and emphasize personal piety but refuse to get into the messes around us. We should pray that the church in America will work to eliminate these discrepancies. May we hope in God’s kingdom ultimately, while still working to embody the kingdom presently.

The Scars That Have Shaped Me

full_the-scars-that-have-shaped-me-8mx0s41nI just finished reading a friend’s newly released book, The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Our Suffering. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my Monday. My wife Stacy read the book as well, so as we went for a long walk on Monday afternoon, we reflected on our reading.

The personal tone of the book and the short chapters make it a perfectly suitable gift to give someone in the midst of suffering. This is no abstract, academic approach. It’s raw and revealing (as is her blog).

Embracing Lament

In numerous places Vaneetha highlights the importance of not glossing over our suffering with plastic happiness. “Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could” (33). “Deadening our desires may make us stoics, but it won’t make us passionate followers of Christ” (87-88). Don’t encourage those who are suffering to simply think positively. The Christian can fully acknowledge the pain of life, and in fact, this leads all the more to casting ourselves on Christ. She points to Spurgeon’s saying, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages” (94).

She points out that we are often uncomfortable listening to the lament of others (35). I know this is true of me. I confess this as my own sin, and was reminded that both in my marriage and in ministry, I am called to acknowledge the full reality of suffering in order to help others suffer well.

Her counsel for the one suffering is to avoid a positive thinking facade and embrace grief fully (141). Don’t cover up your grief with happy stoicism. Only those who can lament and grieve understand their need for God.

Personalities and Suffering

Vaneetha describes how personality types can multiply the experience of suffering. She suffers from post-polio syndrome, which severely limits her physical stamina and capabilities. This often renders her unable to serve others in ways she’d like to. This would be difficult for anyone, yet its even harder for Vaneetha who is very much wired to serve others. She sees herself as a “helper personality.” This is hardwired into who she is, which only heightens the grief of her inabilities  (87). Although her suffering has opened up opportunities to serve that she never imagined, it also limits her capability to serve in so many other ways.

Individual personality and desires can intensify the experience of suffering. Some losses are felt more acutely based on pre-existing desires. For someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys exercise, it will be extremely difficult to deal with physical limitations like chronic joint pain. Whereas for someone who likes being inside and would rather read a book than go for a walk, physical limitations while still difficult, might be easier to bear.

This is important to remember in walking with someone through pain or suffering. If they seem to be “blowing things out of proportion,” we should remember that what might seem like it should be small or manageable to us may be of much greater significance to another person. We should avoid dealing with problems by offering solutions, and rather deal with individual people by listening to their experience of suffering and how they are processing it.

Pray for Healing?

“In the midst of broken dreams and reinventing pain, how should we pray? Should we pray for healing and deliverance, believing that we just need to ask because God can do anything? Or should we relinquish our desires to God, trusting that even in our anguish he has the perfect plan for us? Yes. When life falls apart, God invites us to do both.”

In this section and throughout the book, Vaneetha strikes a helpful balance in encouraging prayer for healing without putting hope in the healing itself. Our hope is in God and not in his gifts (66). Abraham’s faith wasn’t in the promise alone. His faith was rooted in the Promisor (80). God’s refusals remain his mercies (82).

In this sense she says we can consider the future and ask God for healing. There is no need to fear the “what if” of the future. What if the healing doesn’t come. What if the suffering doesn’t end. Rather, we can pray for change, and yet remain confident in God’s mercy “even if” the change never comes. “Replacing what if with even if in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges” (118)

Where to Go in Suffering

At one point, Vaneetha says that the best place to go in the midst of suffering is the Bible and prayer. “Read the Bible even when it feels like eating cardboard. And pray even when it feels like talking to a wall” (123). These answers might sound simplistic if they didn’t come from someone  who has walked through so much suffering and has found through the experience the reliability of this counsel.

Throughout the book she shows how God’s Word has ministered to her in the midst of her suffering. It was instructive to me to see many familiar passages from “the sufferer’s perspective” (71-72).

The Word and prayer are deep wells. I should encourage the sufferer to return to these wells even when they seem dry. And then I should pray that the Lord would give refreshing through these means of grace.

Seeking to minister to a friend in suffering will include asking God to bring them comfort and hope through his Word and through their prayers. While it may not always be right for me to instruct a sufferer in truth (as in the ill-timed exhortations of Job’s friends), I ought to pray that God would speak to the heart of my suffering friend through the Spirt and by the Word.

J. C. Ryle’s Five Hints for Simplicity in Preaching

ryle1bJ. C. Ryle’s preaching advice deserves at least as much attention as his amazing beard. After forty-five years in ministry as a preacher, J. C. Ryle delivered a lecture entitled “Simplicity in Preaching.” He recounts his early years in ministry, preaching to laborers and farmers in a rural parish. He remembered hearing of a farmer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day in the week, “Because I can sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”

Ryle learned that preaching with simple clarity was extremely important, and yet extremely difficult. By “simple” Ryle did not mean to imply childish or simplistic. Rather, he gives these five hints for attaining elegant simplicity: use clear thoughts, simple words, simple style, direct style and many stories.

First, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. (Clear Thoughts)

Ryle says this is the most important of the five. “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” Ryle says spending too much in obscure prophetic passages or the book of Revelation will not lead to simplicity. Such passages are “almost impossible” to make simple. Ryle doesn’t say to avoid these books, but only to handle them “occasionally, at fit times, before a suitable audience,” and only if you really understand the passage. Other advice in this section: 1) don’t force true doctrine out of the wrong text, 2) have clear divisions in your sermon, even if they aren’t explicit, 3)  the divisions should serve as hooks or pegs to help people remember your sermon, and 4) examine and analyze sermons which draw people together. Ryle says he regularly examine C. H. Spurgeon’s preaching because it was able to hold together a large crowd. “How thoroughly [Mr. Spurgeon] brings before you certain great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which, once planted in your memory you never forget!”

Second, try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words. (Simple Words)

Ryle isn’t necessarily suggesting single-syllable words only, but rather “words which are in daily common use amongst the people.” Ryle points out that knowing your audience is important here. The extent of your vocabulary should vary based on the education of your audience.

Third, take care to aim at a simple style of composition. (Simple Style)

“Beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause…Write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” Remember that a reader is able to help himself by looking back a few lines and refreshing his mind. The listener would be helped by a verbal equivalent. That is, the preacher should continually restate his idea in various ways. State your point fully, then offer the same idea in a proverb or epigram (something that’s tweetable). Ryle says that tweetable comments are of “vast importance” (maybe a slight paraphrase).

“Proverbial, epigrammatic, and antithetical sayings…give wonderful perspicuousness and force to a sermon. Labour to store your minds with them.”

Fourth, use a direct style. (Direct Style)

Address your congregation directly. Use ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than ‘we’. Ryle says, “I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that ‘we’ was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone, but that parish clergymen should always talk of ‘I’ and ‘you’.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. (Many Stories)

Stories are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” Jesus used illustrations, metaphors and stories constantly. If you pause in your sermon and say, “Now I will tell you a story,” then it might wake the sleepers. Therefore, preachers should heed the Arabian proverb, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.” Ryle says, “Illustration, I confidently assert, is one of the best receipts for making a sermon simple, clear, perspicuous and easily understood.” Yet he also warns that there is a limit. Overly detailed or drawn out stories, or too many of them in a single sermon, may be as dangerous as having none at all.

In some concluding words, Ryle says,  “We must talk to our people when we are out of church if we would understand how to preach to them in church.” And then he reminds the preacher that all the skill and simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.

Five Warning Signs: Have you abandoned your first love?

In a short letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus told them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4).

1. What does it mean to abandon your first love?

It means that at one time in the past you had greater love than you do now. You aren’t necessarily running on a completely empty tank, but you’re on fumes. That original fullness of love has been diminished.

Think back to your conversion and the kinds of spiritual experiences you had at first. Maybe your had some poorly formed understanding of the gospel, not really a developed knowledge of God. Yet while the mind wasn’t fully informed, the heart was beating fast, passionate.

For me that early period was my high school and college years. I was excited about discovering new things about the faith. I stayed up late nights in my room reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and any book by John Piper I could find. I memorized Scripture. We had a group of guys that met each week and read books together and kept each other accountable for growing in the faith and prayed together. We were going to downtown Madison to talk about the gospel with university students. There was vitality and zeal.

You can probably think back to some of those early formative experiences in the faith. Maybe some of you are going through that period right now. It’s like a budding romance, the honeymoon phase, the newborn. And Jesus says that first love should be our always love. And so we have to honestly ask…

2. How do you know if you’ve lost it? How do you assess that? Here are five warning signs.

Warning sign #1 is that you talk about spiritual growth in the past tense. When you think about transformative truth you’ve learned, or dominating sins you’ve defeated, they aren’t recent things. Maybe God has done some amazing things in your life, but that was in prior years or decades. If you aren’t learning new truths and taking new steps in following Jesus, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #2 is that you have a hard time loving others. You’re easily irritated with those around you. Criticism of other people is a steady part of your conversation. Or when you think of those who disagree with you politically or doctrinally, all you feel is disdain and disgust. John says to you, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). Or else he is a liar. You may be able to explain the Trinity with precision, but does your own family, or whoever you live with, do they really believe you love God wholeheartedly, and do they see that love reflected in the way you treat them? If you have a hard time loving others, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #3 is that you can’t remember the last time you shared the gospel with a non-Christian. Christians can do all our evangelism in an echo chamber. We talk about doing evangelism but never actually do it. And that slowly morphs over time to the point that we love the fact that we’re right about the gospel and care little about the fact that others don’t know it. We have a zeal to be right, but not a zeal for Christ to be known. If you haven’t talked about Jesus with a non-Christian lately, maybe you’re low on love.

Warning sign #4 is that your love for the world is stronger than your love for the Father. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). God gives earthly gifts to be enjoyed. Paul said, “Everything created by God is good…and should be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). The question isn’t whether you enjoy earthly things, but whether you’re enjoying them more than God.

Warning sign #5 is that you are harboring some known sin. David’s secret adulterous sin with Bathsheba was corrosive to his love for God. He thought he could continue as God’s king without honoring God’s laws. When David finally repented of that sin, he pleaded with God, “Renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” A lot of people try to worship heartily on Sunday morning and harbor sin all week long. You can’t grip God and sin with the same fist.

3. How do you get it back? If you’ve lost your first love, how do you recover it?

If you have in your head an initial diagnosis of having left your first love, don’t ignore that thought. Paul says “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17). What the Holy Spirit wants is the death of your sin. The Spirit’s interest revolves around revealing your sin, and leading you to put it to death. Don’t ignore that diagnosis if that’s what you’ve come up with.

But don’t go to self-condemnation over that either. Psalm 103 says that God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Jesus was divine righteousness. We are dust from the earth. And God doesn’t expect divinity out of humanity. He forgives our failings and is sympathetic with our weaknesses. So don’t respond with neglect, but don’t respond with despair either. Instead, consider how to recover that first love. Here are five suggestions.

First, repent of known sin and reconcile where needed. Let’s go back to that known sin we were just talking about. We all know that there is a lot under the surface of life, and the reality is that we all are walking in forms of hypocrisy, where our belief is better than our conduct. But are you hiding and covering sins, or are you actively dealing with them, repenting? The Christian is not marked by perfection, but by repentance. And if your sin requires relational healing with someone, attend to it immediately. Love toward God grows along with love toward others.

Second, after repenting of sin, ask God for growth in love. Follow the example of David in Psalm 51, go back and read that passage, where after repenting from sin, he pleads with God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Where does love for God come from? Where do we go to get it? 1 John 4:7, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” To love God is a gift that he gives. Ask him, and don’t stop asking. Repent of sin, then ask God for growth in love.

Third, apply the gospel to yourself every day. A mature Christian is one who applies the truth of the gospel regularly to their heart and life. John Newton said the word that is most descriptive of the mature Christian is “contemplation” (Newton, Select Letters, 14). Because the mature Christian has tried to maintain obedience for a long time, and has realized the inevitability of our failure, and the insufficiency of our self-effort, and thus the absolute necessity of the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ. And the more our self-understanding is shaped by the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus, the more we will love God and others. To have the “first love” is to be constantly aware of the forgiveness that has come to you through Jesus Christ. Apply the gospel to your sin.

Fourth, share the gospel with others. Remember, Jesus intended for the church in Ephesus to be a lamp stand (1:12, 20, 2:1). To remedy the loss of love, Jesus says, “remember from where you have fallen, do the works you did at first.” He calls them to renew their status as an effective gospel lampstand. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God (Matthew 5:13-16).

Fifth, do all this as part of the church. This letter to the church in Ephesus addresses the church as a whole: “You all have left your first love.” We should each examine ourselves individually, but it is also true that just as you have individual flaws and virtues, so also your church has distinctive flaws and virtues that reflect patterns among its many members. Every Christian has to own the responsibility of their church as a whole. No one wants to be blamed for the sin of others, but here in Revelation the church is addressed as a whole. And so we must think not only of our own individual health, but also of the health of our church.

 

Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 represent Jesus’ assessment of what was good and what was not good in these churches. These were actual churches in historical cities in modern-day Turkey (Asia Minor), but in many ways, these individual churches represent churches of all time. The virtues they demonstrated as well as the flaws that marked them are shared in common by churches of every age.

So we can take these letters together, and assess the health of our own church by what we find here. The overall themes are doctrinal fidelity, holy behavior, gospel witness, and sincere, lively love toward God. Any church could assess itself against the seven qualities that Jesus calls these churches to exhibit. Each point of assessment could be accompanied by a set of diagnostic questions to help determine the church’s state of health.

  1. Authentic Love (2:1-7, Ephesus). They were commended for rejecting false apostles, but critiqued for abandoning their first love. They had doctrinal fidelity without sincere love. Jesus calls them to correct this discrepancy in their church by pursuing authentic love which combined concern for doctrine with zealous affection for God.
    • Is our church high on doctrinal fidelity, but low on spiritual passion, especially in the form of witnessing of Jesus to non-Christians? Do new people tend to come to our church because of our doctrinal depth or because of our spiritual passion?
  1. Enduring Faithfulness (2:8-11, Smyrna). Jesus has only commendation for Smyrna. Because of their faith in Christ, they are materially poor, and yet they are spiritually rich. As slander, economic exclusion and persecution increased for them, Jesus calls them to enduring faithfulness. The need is for fidelity in the midst of oppression.
    • Is our church prioritizing faithfulness to Jesus over acceptance in society? Where dominant cultural trends are at odds with the Christian faith, are we maintaining a counter-cultural stance?
  1. Pure Teaching (2:12-17, Pergamum). In some ways, the church in Pergamum was the opposite of Ephesus. Pergamum was holding fast to Jesus amid extreme opposition, and yet they were permitting false teaching in the church. Jesus calls them to repent and remove the false teachers from the church. Jesus calls them to pure teaching.
    • Is there any teaching in our church that does not align with Scripture, but we aren’t dealing with it because it would be too difficult, or we’re afraid it might hurt feelings?
  1. Holy Separation (2:18-29, Thyatira). Jesus commends them for being full of good works, but rebukes them sharply for tolerating sexual immorality as well as pagan idol worship. Jesus calls them to separate themselves from every form of idolatry and immorality.
    • Are we turning a blind eye toward members in our church that we know are indulging in various forms of immorality or blatant worldliness? What are some clear examples of worldliness that cannot coexist with faith in Jesus?
  1. Gospel Behavior (3:1-6, Sardis). Jesus commends a handful of Christians in Sardis who have been faithful, but he has nothing good to say about the church as a whole. They have not continued in living as faithful followers of Jesus. The letter is not specific about precise features of their unfaithfulness, but there are some clues that they have not continued witnessing the good news of Jesus Christ. Beale points out that if Christians in Sardis had “maintained too high a Christian profile in the city, they would likely have encountered persecution of various sorts.”
    • Does our church’s service in our local community reflect the gospel to anyone outside the church who observes us? If our church vanished from the city tomorrow, would anyone notice that we were gone?
  1. Bold Perseverance (3:7-13, Philadelphia). Jesus has nothing negative to say to the church in Philadelphia (as with Smyrna). Philadelphia receives a similar exhortation, but with a particular emphasis on continuing to speak of Jesus with others, even though they may feel weak or intimidated. Jesus encourages them continue in boldness despite opposition.
    • How frequently are the members of our church (collectively) speaking of Jesus to those around them? As society more broadly rejects theistic explanations of reality, how faithful are we in continuing to point others to transcendent truth as revealed in Jesus?
  1. Spiritual Vitality (3:14-22, Laodicea). Smyrna was spiritually rich but materially poor. But Laodicea is the other way around. They say, “I am rich and prosperous.” But Jesus says, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” This church is on the verge of not being considered a believing community at all. Jesus says to them to beware of the dangerous position they are in, repent of these obvious patterns of sin in their faith community, and to renew their sincere commitment to Jesus.
    • Is there clear evidence that members of our church are regularly repenting of sin? What demonstrations of continuous renewal of commitment to Jesus do we see in our church?

Every one of these letters concludes with this exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These letters demand reflection that results in Spirit-empowered transformation, both for individuals and congregations.

The Two Values that Bind Americans Together: The Isolating Coherence of an Incoherent Culture

What are the shared beliefs or “values” that hold our society together?

I’ve just finished reading a sociological work titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a collaborative effort by five sociologists led by Robert Bellah (University of California, Berkeley).

They highlight the central role of individualism in American life going all the way back to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835 and 1840). Tocqueville wrote about the mores (cultural values) of colonial America, which he called “habits of the heart.” And it was Tocqueville that helped to give currency to a new word. “‘Individualism’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,” he said. Tocqueville went on,

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.

As the authors note, Tocqueville saw the isolation to which Americans are prone as ominous for the future of our freedom. They point out that individualism has a fragmenting and separating effect on society. As everyone pursues his own interest, society tears at the seams.

As they put it, the main question is “whether an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can really be sustained.” Is such a society sustainable? Their conclusion is that individualism develops into an incoherent society, “separation and individuation” become pervasive.

So they ask, “how is it that our culture holds together at all?” In the midst of incoherence, what common values hold us together?

  1. First, the dream of personal success, usually defined in material or economic terms. Whatever economic rung a person is on, they want to climb higher. This economic ambition is fed by television and media, which present a “consumption-centered version of the good life.” This is utilitarian individualism.
  2. Second, the portrayal of vivid personal feelings. This is expressive individualism, where the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s feelings. To accurately understand the self and effectively pursue the interests of the self in each situation or relationship.

But these two integrating themes of society are really “pseudo-integration,” not really binding us together but isolating us further as each pursues his own good but neglects societal good. As Matthew Arnold said in 1852, “in the sea of life ensiled… / We mortal millions live alone.”

Thus, the only two unifying narratives of American society turn out not to be unifying at all, but rather isolating. The values we have chosen to bring coherence actually bring further incoherence.

The sociologists not only critique, they also offer hope. Many of those whom they interviewed were hopeful, that “though the processes of separation and individuation were necessary to free us from the tyrannical structures of the past, they must be balanced by a renewal of commitment and community if they are not to end in self-destruction or turn into their opposites. Such a renewal is indeed a world waiting to be born if we only had the courage to see it.”

They envision a society that holds in balance the dignity and freedom of each individual, but also obligation to and participation in the wider community.

It struck me that the church should be a model of this kind of society. The church is a community bound together by an integrating narrative, the gospel. And around this narrative we affirm the role and dignity of the individual, as well as the necessity of the whole community and vital participation in it.