Against Heresies

The early Church Father Irenaeus wrote a book with the same title as this blog post.  The heresies which most concerned him were various forms of Gnosticism which were plaguing the 2nd century Church.  Gnostic teachers tried to use Christianity as a way of spreading their rather outlandish teachings.  They tried to appropriate Jesus and insert Him into their fanciful visions of divine history.  Every now and then we read of some academic with a burning need to publish something trying to say that those heretics were really a legitimate version of Christianity.

What fascinates me is the way in which all sorts of old heresies keep raising their ugly heads in the Church.  The old Arian heresy that led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed by the Church is still floating around in the form of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who might ring your doorbell this evening.  Another modern version of an old heresy was raised up a couple of years ago by some well known evangelical theologians who began to argue that Jesus was eternally subordinate to the Father.  In other words, Jesus might be God but He isn’t as fully God as is the Father.  And who knows where their speculations would take them with regard to the status of the Holy Spirit?  And then there is all sort of heresy being sown in Pentecostal circles, including the idea that the Holy Spirit is not equal to the Father and the Son. (A good reference on this is John MacArthur’s book Strange Fire) And let us also note here the Unitarianism that is really the undercurrent among many liberal theological speculations.

Yes, there are always heresies troubling the Church of Jesus Christ.  And we need to be quite candid about why that is so–Satan tempts sinners within the Church.  He holds before them the illusion that they have more insight into God’s ways than those who went before them.  It is a conceit rife in our society, that we moderns are more knowledgeable and even more intelligent than our ancestors.  What the modern heretics ignore, however, is the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring the Church to come to a knowledge of the Truth.  A knowledge which has been shared down through the centuries.  We find the Truth in the Word of God and in the Ecumenical creeds which summarize the one true faith.

If you doubt the Word of God recorded in the 66 books of the Bible or if you cannot speak the Creeds without any dishonesty, friend–you are a heretic.  And that is not a good things to be.

However, since heresies are the creations of the minds of men, we can indeed return to the true faith by spending our time immersed in the Word of God and allowing Him to guide us past the rocks and shoals our sinful minds erect to keep us from the submission we owe to the Creator, Redeemer and Comforter who is the true object of our worship.

 

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It’s Not Always A Rose Garden

There was a country song out many years ago called “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden”–in other words, I never told you life would be always easy.  Right now my wife and I are experiencing a “not-rose garden”.  We live in a condo and early Sunday morning the water heater in the apartment above us broke and water came down through our walls into our bathroom and kitchen.  Now the drywall has to be replaced and the bathroom redone.  We will have to leave our home for about 10 days to 2 weeks while the work is done.  The damage isn’t too awful and the repairs won’t cost us anything, but our lives are still being disrupted and made less than pleasant.

That’s the way life is in this sin saturated world we live in. Nothing is perfect, everything is distorted by sin and all manner of bad can happen to anyone–even saved saints of God.  Now some people try to tell us that if we just have true faith nothing bad will ever happen to us, we’ll all be healthy, wealthy and wise, to quote Benjamin Franklin.  There is a whole segment of the Christian Church that teaches what is sometimes called a prosperity gospel, which is indeed no Gospel at all but a bunch of malarkey thought up by people who are generally the only ones who seem to become wealthy.

Christians are not immune to the ills of this world.  What we are is forgiven and rescued from our sinfulness by the blood of Jesus, and that is worth far, far more than anything this world can give us.  Our future is assured because Christ did for us what neither we nor anything in this world could do.  That is what we hold to in times of difficulty.

But still–I can’t wait to get my place back in order.   🙂

Beware of Life Celebrations

I had an experience this week which really bothers me.  One of our members went home to the Lord.  This was not unexpected given her advanced age and health issues, but it was still painful for those of us who loved that person.

I was contacted by one of the person’s children and asked to refrain from speaking about sin or the fact that their parent had been a sinner during the service.   They wanted to keep everything “upbeat” and happy.  I said that the Gospel is only good news if you know what the alternative is–eternity in hell.  Sinners who know Christ as Lord and Savior are not bound for punishment but for an eternity in the presence of the Lord.  That’s what makes the news good for believers.  That, however, wasn’t good enough.  There could be no discussion of such things because they were a “downer”, I guess.  I also pointed out that funerals always have people in attendance who have not heard the Gospel and it is an important part of a funeral service to witness to those folks, especially when the deceased had a saving faith.

Well, none of this was good enough and so we’re not having a funeral.  The family is sponsoring its own celebration of life at a civic building.  That’s okay, I know where the deceased is and I rejoice in their salvation.

Despite being disturbed by this one incident, I have to say that I have been put off for some time about these so-called celebrations of life that have become popular.  I’m especially put off when they take place in churches.  Oh, I know that the family and friends want to hear good things about the one they mourn, and I have no objection to that at all.  There is a place in our service for a Life Sketch where that is done.  But there is also the proclamation of the Gospel in readings, prayers, hymns and a sermon.  What is taking place here is not about the person’s life in this world, however long that may be.  It is about the person’s life on the other side of the door–the really long part of life, not the short one.

St. Paul writes that we are not to grieve as do those who have no hope.  Grieving is normal, but it becomes abnormal when it is either stuffed down in our gut, kept and massaged in our minds, or when people try to assuage their grief with a big party.  Only faith in Jesus and in the eternal blessings bestowed on His elect people can truly give us hope filled grief, a bearable grief which has with it a true sense of victory over sin, death and the devil.

As a pastor I have responsibility for the care of the souls whom I serve.  I won’t allow that to be diluted by worldly views.  If that makes me a bad guy, I guess I’m a bad guy.  But I will always care much more about the long future of my parishioners than about their short past.

Vacation and Worship

My wife and I returned yesterday from a two week vacation.  I’ve found as I’ve aged that it pretty much takes two weeks for me to really feel rested, one just won’t do the trick.

While we were gone we worshiped twice at a church in South Carolina.  We’ve been there before and we have always heard the Gospel proclaimed in that place. It’s good, especially for pastors, to spend time under someone else’s teaching.  For those of us who preach regularly it gives us an opportunity to hear maybe another perspective on a text or another take on a topic.  For those who spend Sunday morning in the pews it’s also gives them a view of something a little different from their regular Sunday morning fare. (Let’s face it, pastors, we all have our hobby horses and our styles and, since none of us are Jesus, none of us are perfect preachers).

I confess I don’t understand those who think that a family vacation also means a vacation away from Sunday worship.  Every time we enter a sacred place, we enter into an immediate interaction with the God of the universe.  And every place where the Gospel is proclaimed in its purity is indeed a sacred place–whether in a store front or pole barn or a 200 year old church like the one I serve.  As Christians we should long for that weekly fellowship before the living God with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And yet so many of us use excuses for why we aren’t in church on Sundays–vacation being one of those excuses.

Sometimes picking a church to attend on vacation can be a little dicey.  We generally don’t know the congregations or the pastors in the places we visit.  We’re not always sure what is being taught there.  So I have some suggestions.  First, pay attention to the denomination.  That won’t be a sure fire answer to the question about what we can expect, but it will help.  Of course there are orthodox congregations and pastors in even the most unorthodox denominations as there are unorthodox congregations and pastors in the most orthodox denominations.  Still, the denomination is a generally good guide.  Second, don’t pick a church solely on the time of service, whether early or late.  Going to the local “community church” because it’s time fits your schedule best is a roll of the dice at best.  Third, be open and friendly to the people who are members there.  I know the people are supposed to be friendly to visitors, and I hope they are everywhere, but visitors shouldn’t just be passive receivers of greetings–after all, these are people of our family in Christ.  Finally, make a joyful noise unto the Lord and learn something about Jesus.

Happy vacation worship.

What We Preach Matters

I am a big advocate of expository preaching.  This style of preaching involves going through the Biblical text verse by verse (or something close to that).  I most often preach straight through a book of the Bible.  Right now I’m preaching through Deuteronomy and I must admit it is occasionally taxing my ingenuity because it is not always easy to make sermon material out of some of the laws.  I started this method some years ago because I believe many people miss too much of God’s Word when we stick solely to the assigned texts for the church year.

I read an article recently which reminded me of the danger of expository preaching–I could miss the proclamation of the Gospel.  For example, if I proclaim God’s Word from Deuteronomy this Sunday but fail to connect what is taught there to Jesus Christ who was crucified and risen for me, then I have debased the pulpit,, for Jesus and Jesus alone is our Savior.  The Old Testament speaks in progressive revelation of the One who would rid us of the stain of our sin, and it is our duty to bring that out in its fullness.  What the Law meant to people in 1800 BC is irrelevant in the light of Christ and I must make sure the people in the pews before me understand what the text means now that the fullness of the revelation of God has been made known to us.

Preaching is a great privilege but it also carries with it great responsibility.  As James points out, those who teach in the Church will be judged by a higher standard.  We who have been given this privilege must remember we have been called to speak of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Our opinions on most things don’t matter.  Historical information may be interesting, but it is of little purpose if it does not contribute to the proclamation of Christ for us.

Like many other things, preaching styles are subject to fads.  Recently there was this experiment with telling stories rather than preaching sermons.  From reports on sermons I’ve received, it seems to be pretty much a failure because it strays from the Word too easily.  But even the best preaching style can fail miserably if the preacher forgets why we’re really here and Who we really serve.

School Shootings Aren’t The Problem

Terrible things have been happening in our country.  Multiple attacks made on schools by young people have made everyone nervous and every politician is fighting to get in front of a microphone so they can “deplore” and “promise change” and fix what so far seems unfixable.  Everyone has a program or a policy that they claim will solve the problem and absolutely every single one of those programs or policies will fail.

Of course guns are said to be the culprits.  But guns are inanimate objects.  They are incapable of doing anything on their own.  If you lay a gun on a table and never touch it nothing will happen except a layer of dust will decorate it.  Guns are not responsible for shootings, people are responsible for shootings and if we outlawed all guns of all types people who wanted to kill would find another way to do it.  My understanding is that a bomb can be made from things any of us could buy at a hardware store.  What are we going to do–outlaw fertilizer?

The problem we are facing is one caused not by the availability of weapons but by the desire of people to use those weapons.  There is the problem.

We are all born sinners.  I believe that any one of us is quite capable of committing an evil act, given the right circumstances.  A well ordered society which promotes behavior that encourages community and interpersonal relationships that are both deep and continuing will have fewer outbreaks of violence and evil than an atomistic society that speaks only of “rights” and hardly ever of “responsibilities”.

Friends we live in that very atomistic society in which everyone proclaims their “rights” (real and imagined) frequently and loudly.  American culture is today sick unto death.

I have no hope for the future of this nation if God does not send another Great Awakening among us–an Awakening that will last through multiple generations so that the rot that invests our public and private lives will be beaten back and replaced by (dare I say it) personal virtue and public responsibility.

The politicians can’t fix what is wrong with this country.  The courts can’t fix what’s wrong with this country.  The schools can’t fix whats wrong with this country.  Don’t waste your time looking to them.  If this nation will survive at all it can only do so when Christians begin to take God’s Word seriously–when the Sermon on the Mount becomes our standard–when a biblical worldview guides our lives–when we who claim to follow Christ begin to live His way, showing the world around us the superiority of God’s way of life in this world.  All too often it’s hard to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians in how we live, how we speak, how go about our work, how we behave.

So let those who claim to follow Christ be the difference.  Even if we can’t save America, we can witness to the One who can.

Lutheran Pietism

It’s said that when the early German settlers came to this country they often brought two books with them–Luther’s translation of the Bible and Johann Arendt’s book True Christianity.  True Christianity was the opening statement, if you will, in the movement that became known as Pietism.  Since that time this movement has been hailed as a saving force for Reformation theology and demonized as a substitution of personal feelings for Biblical truth.

I’ve been asked to write a little about Pietism and I’ll admit that I think it has overall been a good thing, but like any system established by people, it has its flaws and dangers.

The early Reformers did not spend much time on systematizing their theology–they were too busy dealing with the immediate problems and dangers they were facing.  In the generations after Luther’s death, Lutheran scholars began to work on theology in way Luther had not.  Indeed, some of the most famous ones began to again use the methodologies of the Scholastic scholars Luther so disliked.  That, combined with the increasing Rationalism of the age, led many Lutheran clergy to treat faith as a series of doctrines which, once learned and professed, would lead to salvation for the believer.  There was little discussion of what that should mean for the life of someone who professed Christ as Savior.

Arendt’s work was meant to encourage Christians to do more than simply recite statements, but to allow Christ to change their lives, to alter the way they saw the world and behaved in it.  It was, in effect, a call to sanctification in the life of a believer.

A generation later Philip Spener wrote a new introduction to True Christianity which came to be called the Pia Desideria.  This is often cited as the beginning of the Pietism movement.  It was a powerful movement in Germany and Scandinavia for several centuries.  Many of the Lutherans who came to American brought this as part of their religious understanding.  The great organizer of early American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who was trained at the University of Halle, the center of German Pietism at the time.  Later on Scandinavian immigrants brought their version of the movement to the Us.

At its best Pietism was a holistic movement which taught both good doctrine and a life of piety, a faith life that showed itself in good works.  At its worst Pietism could become overly fixated on the importance of a a personal response to  Christ leading them to a semi-Pelagianism that substituted a person’s willful acceptance for Christ’s saving election.  It would therefore be wrong to completely identify piety with Pietism.  One can without a doubt live a pious life without being a Pietist.  Works of piety are not part of a movement, but of a lifestyle.

On the whole Pietism had a lasting impact on Lutheran thought and life, especially in the United States where Lutheranism has remained a dynamic religious movement even as it has shed part of it’s ethnic identity