Saturday, June 26, 2021

Preaching Sunday, June 27, 7:45 - Watch on Live Stream

 I will speak at our HSRM conference

Sunday evening, June 27

7:45 PM





HIS IDENITY ~ OUR AUTHORITY CONFERENCE LIVE STREAM LINK

Addressing Progressive Christianity

 

                                                               (Gatlinburg aquarium)

Linda and I strongly recommend Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity.

I am doing two workshops on Deconstructing Progressive Christianity. 

The first is Wednesday, June 30, Green Lake (Wisconsin), at our HSRM conference.

The second is at Redeemer, Wed., July 7, 6:30 PM. (If you are coming please let me know.) 

And, I am submitting a manuscript of my book on Progressive Christianity, Aug. 15, to a publisher who has shown interest. (This does not mean they will accept it. But, they are encouraging me to submit it.)

Friday, June 25, 2021

Studying Atonement in Romans

 

                                                             (Ladybug, in my house.)

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...

1 Corinthians 15:3

I'm enjoying doing Romans for my Summer Bible Study. 51 have joined me! I've taught this book many times. And, as a result, studied and re-studied it over the decades. And, several years ago, I preached verse-by-verse through Romans, over a period of almost two years!

In Romans a number of big biblical themes come forth. Such as the cross, and atonement. And, of course, salvation.

These are particularly important themes for such a time as this, because "progressive" Christians are denying historical, orthodox views of atonement. Many are universalists, and say postmodern things like "Jesus died on a cross, not to pay for our sins, but to 'speak truth to power'." (E.g., progressivists like Rob Bell and William Paul Young, et. al.) 

If you are interested in digging deep, check these out.

The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (essays and responses by Greg Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach, and Thomas Schreiner). I learn much from reading the "Views" books!

What Did the Cross Accomplish: A Conversation About the Atonement, by N. T. Wright and Simon Gathercole (who both hold a variant of penal substitution)

Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Explanation, by William Lane Craig. (Penal substitution theory [the bane of progressives!])



Wednesday, June 23, 2021

My Calling to Be a Pastor


                                         (Pine tree and moon, our backyard)


Moses' calling by God changed his life forever. Ruth Haley Barton writes:


"When God spoke to him out of the burning bush, he was asking Moses to take the difficult journey of “rising to personality”—rising to the full purpose of his being here on earth—in order to realize the meaning of his life. He was asking him to become more fully the person he had always been and at the same time to transcend it." (Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, p. 83) 

My transcending moment came through a church bulletin announcement. It altered the course of my life forever. I was 21, and a brand new Jesus-follower. My heart was untainted by church politics (or any politics), and my knowledge of the Bible and Jesus was slim. I just knew I had been rescued by Jesus, and loved him for this. 

The line in the bulletin read: "Please pray that our church would find a new youth leader." This was Tabor Lutheran Church, in Rockford, Illinois. I grew up in Tabor. I liked my church family. My father served as a deacon. He was a quiet man, so it still creates wonder in me to think that he taught Sunday School, and I was in one of his classes.

I was never involved in Tabor's youth group, being consumed with playing sports and practicing guitar. I never led anything like a Sunday School class or a Bible study, nor would have wanted to. I'd never prayed out loud. I rarely prayed at all. I didn't turn to God for anything, ever, until the day when, in my desperation, I said "God, if you are real, help me." He did.

For two Sundays in a row the line in the bulletin read: "Please pray that our church would find a new youth leader." You mean we haven't found one yet? The kids in this church need a leader! Having been spiritually leaderless myself I knew this to be fact. Every kid needs a mentor. I had been mentored by my peers, did a lot of self-mentoring, and the results were disastrous. I was lost. But now, at last, was "found." I wanted Tabor's teens to experience The Rescue, as I had.

On week three of the announcement I came to Sunday morning worship service looking forward to, of all things, reading the bulletin. There it was: "Please pray that our church would find a new youth leader." I felt an urgency about this. I began praying. Throughout the following week this was on my prayer list: "O God, please, please bring someone to help our church's youth." And then it happened. I told God, sounding like Sarah, "Surely you are joking?"

I called Pastor Harvey Johnson, and made an appointment to get together. I had never done anything like this before. (The words "I've never done something like this before" were to become thematic in my life.) I wonder what he thought I wanted to talk about?

I admired and respected Pastor Johnson. I was nervous on the day I met with him. Part of me felt foolish, a rookie with zero job experience, applying for a position that begged for credentials.

"I have seen the announcement in the bulletin. Has any progress been made on finding a youth leader?"

No.

I can't remember the words I used next. Somehow I expressed my idea, my sense, that God was appealing to me to work as Tabor's Youth Leader. I remember feeling how unwise this sounded to me. I told Pastor Johnson about my new life in Christ, and confessed that I had not even heard the words "seminary training" before. After much listening and sharing he affirmed my calling. "I think God wants you to do this, so let's do it." He seemed genuinely grateful that God had finally answered his prayers.

Sometimes I have wondered what my life would look like had that announcement not been in the bulletin, or if Tabor found another youth leader, or if Pastor Johnson had told me, "John, you don't have the training and experience for this." That would have been understandable. I am still amazed that he supported me in this! T

Barton quotes Greg Levoy:

"Calls are essentially questions. They aren’t questions you necessarily need to answer outright; they are questions to which you need to respond, expose yourself, and kneel before. You don’t want an answer you can put in a box and set on a shelf. You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of your life." (Ib., 84)

This was my calling to be a pastor. I began to shepherd Tabor's teens. In a few months Linda would join me. Now, I see God's hand in it all, and I have never wanted to rewind my life so that things would have turned out differently.

***
See my book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Empirical Verifiability of Sin (More on Systemic Sin)



(Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio)

I was recently asked, "What, if anything, is the common thread running through the world's religions?" The answer to that is: the world's religions agree that ours is a troubled world. The world's religions attempt to help people live in our messed-up world. (See Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World.)


We, the people, are messed up. Including you and me. This is beyond-easy to verify. Alvin Plantinga, in Knowledge and Christian Belief, writes: "G. K. Chesterton once remarked that of all the doctrines of Christianity, the doctrine of original sin has the strongest claim to "empirical verifiability."" (K1179) Crudely, this means: open your senses and behold how screwed up humanity is. 

"Empirical verifiability" means this: a statement is true (= a certain state of affairs obtains) if that statement is verifiable in principle via the five senses. (Analytic statements, such as A is A, are true analytically; i.e., the predicated state of affairs is contained in the subject.) Plantinga writes:

"It [evil; sin] has been abundantly verified in the wars, cruelty, and general hatefulness that have characterized human history from its very inception to the present. Indeed, no century has seen more organized hatred, contempt, and cruelty than the late and unlamented twentieth; and none has seen it on as grand a scale." (Ib., K1188)

People who live self-reflective lives have, upon introspection, discovered "seeds of destruction" and "violence within." (See Thomas Merton and Paul Tournier.] I have. You would see the same in you, if you routinely subjected yourself to self-examination.

One more thing: the cause of most human suffering due to sin has been perpetrated, at least in the 20th century, by atheists. Plantinga writes elsewhere:

"Of course the world’s religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular ideologies of the twentieth century alone." (Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism . Oxford University Press. Kindle Location 104. See also this.) 

Thus, we can be done with the sophomoric, unstudied idea that sin is the special province of religious people. We can relegate, to the garbage heap of utopianism,  ideas like those in John Lennon's "Imagine." 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Social Justice Theory Is Especially Rooted in Postmodernism

 

                                                (Antique Chrysler, in Monroe, Michigan)

I recommend, once again, for those who believe that, as much as possible, all sides ought to be studied before making evaluations, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - And Why This Harms Everybody. Written by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who are, BTW, atheists (I mention this because of the vast proliferation of all who worship the genetic fallacy).

Postmodernism, they argue, especially dominates certain ideologies, in its intentionality, to the relative exclusion of other ideologies. "Theory" is one of them. (Not all metanarratives are embraced equally.) 

Pluckrose and Lindsay write:

"That is what we set out to provide in this book: a guide to the language and customs that are presently widely promoted under the pleasant-sounding moniker “Social Justice.” We are fluent in both the language and culture of Social Justice scholarship and activism, and we plan to guide our readers through this alien world, charting the evolution of these ideas from their origins fifty years ago right up to the present day. 

"We begin in the late 1960s, when the group of theoretical concepts clustered around the nature of knowledge, power, and language that came to be known as postmodernism emerged from within several humanities disciplines at once. At its core, postmodernism rejected what it calls metanarratives—broad, cohesive explanations of the world and society. It rejected Christianity and Marxism. It also rejected science, reason, and the pillars of post-Enlightenment Western Democracy. Postmodern ideas have shaped what has since mostly been called Theory—the entity which is, in some sense, the protagonist of this book. In our view, it is crucial to understand the development of Theory from the 1960s until the present day if we are to come to terms with and correct for the rapid shifts we have been experiencing in society ever since its inception, and especially since 2010. Of note, throughout this book, Theory (and related words, such as Theorist and Theoretical) with a capital T will refer to the approach to social philosophy that stems from postmodernism."

Which means, postmodernism is itself a metanarrative, as is Theory. Pluckrose and Lindsay brilliantly bring this out.


***

See here - click on "Testimonials."

And here - https://philosophynow.org/issues/143/Cynical_Theories_by_James_Lindsay_and_Helen_Pluckrose

Or...   https://quillette.com/2020/07/20/the-truth-according-to-social-justice-a-review-of-cynical-theories/  ("What Cynical Theories expresses is not a paranoid state of mind. It is a genuine concern about the threat that social justice activism, identity politics, and the legacy of postmodernism poses to Enlightenment liberalism and the belief that “disagreement and debate [are] means to getting at the truth.” The book explains how we have arrived at a state in which social justice scholarship treats the principles and themes of postmodernism as The Truth, where no dissent is tolerated, and anyone who disagrees must be cancelled.")




How to Mourn with the Parents of Stillborn and Miscarried Children


(Downtown Monroe)

Yesterday was Father's Day. Linda and I have three wonderful sons! Sadly, one of them, David, 
was stillborn. Those were the most difficult days of our life.

If this has happened to you as a parent, here's a helpful article: "How to Mourn with the Parents of Stillborn and Miscarried Children."

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Justification in Romans

 

                                                             (Flowers in our back yard.)

51 people have joined my Summer Romans Bible Study.

One of the Big Words in Romans is "justified."

I'm digging deep into this concept. One resource I just picked up is Justification: Five Views. I just finished the first two chapters. So good that I am going to re-read them!

Note these reviews.


"Of all the multiple views books, this one was needed most. It is also perhaps the best yet: getting Horton, Dunn, Bird, Kärkkäinen, O'Collins and Rafferty all at the table at the same time under the same roof is both a tour de force and a brilliant example of how their interaction can teach each of us. One word is needed most for the justification debate at work among (mostly) evangelicals, the word listen, and if you listen to the pages of this book you will see examples of not listening and listening. The challenge remains for all of us: will we listen again to the Scriptures to hear what it says about justification? Or will we impose our systems of thought on the Bible?" (Scot McKnight, North Park University)

"Beilby and Eddy have raised the bar with regard to this multiple views genre, this time bringing together world-renowned scholars and theologians to engage a very hot topic. Reading Justification: Five Views is like being treated to five books by five masters of their craft, each going deep into the details at times but yet also stepping back to cover the forest ably enough for the less initiated to appreciate what is at stake. A must-read for those interested in the ecumenical implications of the doctrine of justification." (Amos Yong, Regent University School of Divinity)

"No single volume could possibly cover all Christian views of the doctrine of justification. Justification: Five Views courageously selects five contemporary views and helpfully presents and critiques them. Each view is expounded and defended by a leading proponent and then critiqued by other contributors. Anyone interested in the current discussion about this crucial Christian doctrine must read this book. It sheds more light than heat in an area of theology almost burned over by heated polemics. Of all the 'views' books out there, this is one of the best." (Roger E. Olson, professor of theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University)

"A wonderfully useful book. After a superb historical survey of the issues to be debated, five influential approaches to the doctrine of justification by faith are presented and defended by credible and engaging representatives. I can think of no better introduction to these important debates than this outstanding volume." (Alister E. McGrath, King's College, London)


Saturday, June 19, 2021

54 Thoughts About Prayer


(Our front yard - snow a week ago in April!)





1.  You will learn more about prayer by actually praying than you can get from a book.
2.  Prayer is talking with God about what God and I are thinking and doing together.
3.  Praying is revolutionary activity whereby I revolt against the kingdom of this world as I meet with the true Lord of heaven and earth.
4.  If you believe God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then you believe God is powerful enough and knows enough to address your struggles.
5.  If you believe that God is all-loving, then you believe that God desires to address your struggles.
6.  What we think about God affects how we worship and pray.
7.  Prayer is not a religious duty, something I “have” to do, but a relationship with God.
8.  In praying I must let go of control and trust God.
9.  The focus of praying is not prayer itself, but God.
10.             I can meet God at a conference. I can also meet the same God wherever I am.
11.             Assume God is doing something in you, now.
12.             Praying is the act of interfacing this world with the kingdom of God.
13.             I can hear the voice of God, speaking to me.
14.             Hearing God’s voice is a function of intimacy with God.
15.             Humility is needed to hear the voice of God.
16.             Discernment is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God, both in the ordinary moments of life and in the larger decisions of life.
17.             As intimacy with God increases, discernment increases.
18.             Discerning should always come before deciding.
19.             In praying, God changes me.
20.             I pray to be able to see God’s Bigger Picture of my life and reality.
21.             I pray for my heart to be shaped into a heart of God’s love.
22.             Praying for people is a God-given, holy burden.
23.             In praying I bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
24.             I pray for others because I believe that where prayer focuses, power falls.
25.             Blessed are the mono-taskers, for they shall see God.
26.             Praying is a slow-cooker, not a microwave.
27.             Teaching people to pray in solitude is one of the greatest needs and challenges of the church today.
28.             Solitary times with God prepare us for fellowship with people.
29.             If you commit to praying God will lead you deeper into community.
30.             One’s personal prayer life can never be understood if it is separated from community life.
31.             In praying we cry for the in-breaking of the kingdom into the brokenness of the present.
32.             In praying God aligns our heart with his kingdom heart.
33.             To pray is to explore and venture into the vast, limitless regions of God’s beautiful kingdom.
34.             Authentic praying is an act of self-denial.
35.             To pray is to let go of control.
36.             When God reveals personal faults it is never to condemn us, but only to rescue us.
37.             There is a “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease” which results in forgetting the many times God has rescued and delivered us.
38.             A main antidote to fear is remembering.
39.             In praying I enumerate things I am thankful for and give thanks to God.
40.             I pray because Jesus prayed.
41.             I pray for protection and guidance.
42.             In praying I am detoxified and released from burdens.
43.             Renewal can begin with one follower of Jesus, praying.
44.             The more Westernized a person is, the less they pray.
45.             Prayvailing – Travailing prayer brings prevailing in a person’s life.
46.             I need to set aside some time very day for active talking and listening to God. Just ten minutes each day can bring about a radical change in my life.
47.             Nothing can stop me from praying today.
48.             If I humble myself and pray, turning from any wicked ways, God will hear from heaven and heal the land.
49.             The antidote to spiritual burnout is time alone with God, praying.
50.             Pray even when, especially when, it seems or feels like God is absent.
51.             God isn’t in a panic room when you or I have doubts.
52.             Life is best lived when death is acknowledged.
53.             Kick the “bucket list” and live for a greater purpose.
54.             How a life begins and ends is important. Don’t forget the ending part. 



Jesus Saw the Warning Signs in the Court of the Gentiles

 

On Sunday at Redeemer (6/20/21) I'll teach on Jesus' Temple confrontation with the money exchangers.

I'll refer to this archaeological discovery - a "Warning sign" located in the Court of the Gentiles in Herod's temple.

See here - 

Ancient Temple Mount ‘warning’ stone is ‘closest thing we have to the Temple’.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Tozer on Forming Committees

 

                                                                        (Detroit)

Brace yourself. I am going to quote A.W. Tozer. Tozer writes:

"God in His condescending love and kindness often sends a Moses, or maybe a Joshua or an Isaiah, or in latter times a Luther or Wesley to show us that the work of the Lord is not progressing. Times are bad in the kingdom and getting worse. The tendency is to settle into a rut, and we must get out of it...
Someone says, “Let’s form a committee to consider it.” The Baptist preacher Dr. Vance Havner says, “A committee is a company of the incompetent chosen by the unwilling to do the unnecessary.” Perhaps he stated that a little too radically." (Tozer, Rut, Rot, or Revival: The Problem of Change and Breaking Out of the Status Quo, Kindle Locations 174-176)

Perhaps.

And yet...   I suspect many of my pastoral colleagues, who have inherited Business Model Churches, will agree.

Tozer admits a committee may, under certain circumstances, be helpful. But when times are bad and the church is in a spiritual rut, let's form a committee?

***
My book on leadership is Leading the Presence-Driven Church

The alternative to the Business Model Church is the Discerning Community. See Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

If Jesus Is the Only Way to God, What About Those Who Have Never Heard of Him?

Shipshewana, Indiana (photo by Linda Piippo)

How about some theological discussion as we come to the end of 2018? The question: If Jesus is the only way to God, what about those who have never heard of him?

Imagine this story. John does not believe in Jesus. But Jason does. Jason tells John about Jesus, and John is interested. 

Jason feels God wants him to get back to John soon, but does not find time to get back to John. John dies without hearing more. What was John’s status before John died? To be saved, did he need more information about Jesus? 


Paul Copan asks: “Was his eternal destiny in the hands of [someone] who happened not to respond to an inner prompting? Could it be that God is more interested in a person’s spiritual direction or responsiveness than in his spiritual ‘location’ on a continuum?”


Theistic philosopher Copan does an excellent job of presenting the issues and suggesting answers to the question: what if someone has never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus? The points below are from Copan’s book True for You, But Not for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith. Read the book for more detail and explanation, especially regarding Copan’s “middle knowledge” position.

Here are the relevant points. 


1. God’s desire is that all be saved.


2. All who desire to be saved will have the opportunity to be saved.


3. We can trust that God is loving and just. We can trust that the eternal outcome of every person is in the hands of a loving and just God.


4. Persons who have self-inflicted “transworld depravity” will not want God, or God in Christ. So God is not unjust in applying eternal justice to them; viz., everlasting separation from his presence. (1 Thessalonians 1)


5. God has given persons free will. This is risky. Some will likely freely choose to reject God’s offer of salvation, and his revelation in creation and the moral law within (Romans 1 and 2). As C.S. Lewis wrote, re. this, there are two kinds of persons: one who says to God “Thy will be done,” and one to whom God says “Thy will be done.”


6. If God has middle-knowledge (knowledge of future choices) and knows that John will reject Him in any possible world, then God is not unjust in not presenting John with the opportunity to be saved.

 
Here are five views on the question "What about those who have never heard?"

1. The Agnostic View.


a. Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer are agnostic on the matter.


b. If God really loves the whole world, and if Christ died for all without exception, and if God commands all to repent, and if God does not want any to perish, “then it follows that his initiating grace, though resistible (Acts 7:51), is directed toward all without exception. This would include the unevangelized.” (Copan)


c. We can trust that God has the question of the unevangelized figured out.


d. Further, God has done so much to reach us all, even to suffer with us in a world filled with evil and misery, that we have good reason to believe the unevangelized are in excellent hands.


e. We can trust that God is loving and just. So God won’t condemn anyone for being born at the wrong time and place (viz., in a time and place where the message of the Gospel of Jesus was not known).


f. God is able to reach people in ways we don’t expect. For example, he can reveal himself – and has done so – through visions or angelic messengers. Copan cites examples of Jesus appearing to Muslims who had never heard of him.


g. In the end we can trust in a good God to do no wrong. “We should not think about the unevangelized apart from God’s character, motives, and good purposes.” (Copan)


2. The Inclusivist (Wider-Hope) View 


a. In Romans 2:7 Paul writes: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, [God] will give eternal life.”


b. Could some unevangelized people fit in this category?


c. Inclusivists say: Salvation is exclusive in its source – Christ alone as God’s full, final revelation. Salvation is available to every person – even those the missionary can’t reach.


d. One criticism of this view is that accepting it would diminish missionary zeal. Why bring Christ to the nations if the nations can be saved without hearing of Christ?


e. The inclusivist responds by asking why anyone’s fate should solely depend on evangelists who are not always available and/or faithful?


f. Belief in the sovereignty of God makes us think God will not really leave the destiny of unreached people in the hands of imperfect, fallible missionaries. Can’t God work beyond the boundaries of the gospel’s proclamation and our expectations?


g. What about those in the Old Testament who didn’t know about the historical Jesus and his death and resurrection? “Clearly they were saved on the basis of what Jesus would eventually accomplish (Rom. 3:25; see Acts 17:30).


h. And what about infants and those who are mentally incapable of grasping the gospel message?


i. The inclusivist believes that human beings are guilty and helpless before God, separated from him, and cannot be saved apart from Christ.


j. The inclusivist believes that God wants all to be saved. This seems to imply that he makes salvation available to all.


k. The inclusivist claims that salvation through Jesus’ “name” doesn’t necessarily imply knowing the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth. While Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation, he is not epistemologically necessary.


l. Natural revelation may have a positive role and may be used by God’s Spirit to show the unevangelized their need for him. For example, Romans 1:20 and Romans 2:14-15 may give us two ways persons can be saved without hearing of the Jesus story. Here inclusivists are optimistic about the role of “general revelation” through the creation, and the moral law within each human heart. Millard Erickson, who is not an inclusivist, says: “If they [persons who know about God through his self-revelation in nature (cf. Romans 1:20) but still reject God] are condemnable because they have not trusted God through what they have, it must have been possible somehow to meet this requirement through this means.If not, responsibility and condemnation are meaningless… Perhaps there is room for acknowledging that God alone may know in every case exactly whose faith is sufficient for salvation.” (In Copan)


m. The Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10) seems to be an example of someone who seems to display the working of God’s Spirit and grace in is life.


n. John Stott summarizes the inclusivist argument: “What we do not know, however, is exactly how much knowledge and understanding of the Gospel people need before they can cry to God for mercy and be saved. In the Old Testament, people were certainly “justified by grace through faith,” even though they had little knowledge or no expectation of Christ. Perhaps there are others today in a somewhat similar position. They know they are sinful and guilty before God, and that they cannot do anything to win his favor, so in self-despair they call upon the God they dimly perceive to save them. If God does save such, as many evangelical Christians tentatively believe, their salvation is still only by grace, only by Christ, only by faith.” (In Copan)


Copan presents an argument against the inclusivist position.


a. Inclusivism can blur important distinctions, which can result in disastrous affirmations. For example, some inclusivists hold that Muslims whoa re seeking Allah can be saved.


b. Romans 1 seems to argue against the inclusivist position. Paul has a pessimistic view of humanity’s ability to turn to God because of God’s revelation in nature.


c. There are people who don’t respond to general revelation yet respond to the preaching of the gospel.


d. Inclusivism dampens concern for missions. “It seems doubtful that inclusivism would actually increase evangelistic fervor.”


3. The Accessibilist/Middle Knowledge View


a. God judges the unevangelized based on their response to natural revelation, which his Spirit can use to bring them to salvation. “Natural revelation doesn’t damn anyone without furnishing genuine opportunities to be saved (Romans 2:7) God’s initiative offers them prevenient (“preceding”) grace to respond. All they need to do is humble themselves before him and repent. God is not only just in his judgment, but also gracious in genuinely offering salvation.” (Copan)


b. God can’t make people freely choose to respond to the gospel. “Some might be like NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel, who said, ‘I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’ Indeed, with every new indication of God’s reality, a person might come to resent or hate him even more.”


c. God knows all future possibilities and free choices of human beings, and whoever would want to be saved will find salvation. God knows all truths – even future ones. God knows all possible future events and human choices – what free creatures could do in various circumstance and what world-arrangements are feasible.” For example, Jesus knew (from the Father) that Peter would deny him three times. God knew that Peter would freely choose to deny Christ under certain circumstances.


d. God takes human free will seriously. Copan says: “No one will be condemned as the result of geographical or historical accident, lack of information, or failure of a missionary to “get there.” All who want – or would want – to be saved do find salvation. Those who would always refuse salvation get their way in the end.”


e. Perhaps there’s no feasible world of persons who all freely choose Christ; this God creates a world containing an optimal balance of fewest lost and greatest number saved. Sometimes people ask: “Why didn’t God create world in which everyone freely chose to love him?” But if humans are truly free, then there’s guarantee they will use their free will to love him. Remember that God does not create out of any need. God desires that none perish; he wants us to embrace him and live. Copan writes: “So it’s reasonable to believe that he wants a maximal number of persons saved and a minimal number condemned. He wants his renewed creation – the new heaven and earth – to be as full as possible and hell as empty as possible. The only thing preventing hell’s being completely empty of people is the human will’s resistance to his loving and gracious initiative. God isn’t less loving because some people are condemned for rejecting him. So why couldn’t this world be the one that achieves this optimal balance?”


f. Some persons possess self-inflicted “transworld depravity” or “transworld damnation”; they would have been lost in any world in which they were placed.


g. Missions motivation isn’t diminished, since God has also providentially arranged fort human messengers to bring the gospel to those he knew would accept it if they heard it.


h. Some individuals may seem “so close” to salvation in the actual world without finding it. But perhaps this actual world is the very nearest the transworldly depraved ever come to salvation.


***
My two books are

 Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God. 

Leading the Presence-Driven Church


I am now writing Transformation: How God Changes the Human Heart.

Doing Worship Reps In the Spiritual Gymnasium



"Practice makes perfect" - Hezekiah 2:1.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
- Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

"Train yourself to be godly."
- Paul, 1 Timothy 4:7

Linda and I are spending time in Gatlinburg today and tomorrow. The deck of our hotel room looks directly down to a mountain stream. with the rushing waters as background, we are doing the things that connect us to Jesus. We are in "strict training, competing in the spiritual Olympics." We're not spiritually exercising to gain God's love. Rather, it is because we are God's son and daughter that we "train ourselves to be godly." For us, this is how we abide in Christ. It is our lifeblood!

Let me explain.

The Greek words of 1 Timothy 4:7 are: γύμναζε δὲ σεαυτὸν πρὸς εὐσέβειαν. The first word of this phrase is gymnaze. We get the words "gym" and "gymnasium" from this word. Paul instructs Timothy to exercise in the spiritual gymnasium. Do worship reps and prayer reps and Scripture reps (AKA meditation on Scripture).

In Christian spirituality, repetition (AKA "meditation") is good. We learn to pray and learn about prayer as relationship with God, not primarily by reading books on prayer or attending conferences on prayer, but by actually praying, and praying a lot.

"They all joined together constantly in prayer" - Acts 1:14. (Not: "They all read books about prayer." And not: "They believed in prayer but didn't have time for praying.")

Wanting to pray without engaging in lots of prayer means nothing. Desire without discipline is an illusion. Intentions minus actions = nothing.

Serious weightlifters and bodybuilders do lots and lots of reps to build muscle. Analogically, constant praying builds spiritual strength. Contrast this to a little McPrayer, which only builds up spiritual cholesterol. McPraying hardens the spiritual arteries. But many prayer reps in God's Gymnasium makes for a strong heart.

Constant repetition forms habits. Habits create new neural connections in the physical brain. I am pleased to see N.T. Wright writing about such things: "When people consistently make choices about their patterns of behavior, physical changes take place within the brain itself... Parts of the brain actually become physically enlarged when an individual’s behavior regularly exercises them." Wright, N. T., After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters,  p. 37). 

The physical brain is "plastic"; it is malleable. It changes. This is good news for anyone who want to change. For example, if you are a guitar player and want to play like Joe Satriani, then practice scales in the Lydian mode - over and over and over and over and... ad infinitum.  When you can play them without striving over them, that is the sign that, neurally, your physical brain has morphed into Satrianilikeness..

Paul, without knowing a thing about contemporary neuroscience, would be pleased. Exercise unto godliness! Choose to go apart to pray and meditate on Scripture today. Then, choose this tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. God, by His Spirit, will morph your heart into a praying, Scripture-loving heart. Prayer and Scripture meditation will become "second nature." At this point striving and rule-keeping disappears. N.T. Wright refers to this as the development of Christlike "character." Wright writes:

"Jesus... speaks repeatedly about the development of a particular character. Character—the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits—will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a “rule-keeping” mentality can never achieve. And it will produce the sort of life which will in fact be true to itself—though the “self” to which it will at last be true is the redeemed self, the transformed self, not the merely “discovered” self of popular thought... In the last analysis, what matters after you believe is neither rules nor spontaneous self-discovery, but character." (Wright, N. T., After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, p. 7).

Wright gives, as an analogy of how God forms the human heart into Christlikeness (Gal. 4:19), the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and Flight 1549. When Sullenberger's Airbus A320 took off from New York's La Guardia Airport everything was fine. But the Airbus flew into a flock of Canada geese. Both engines were damaged and lost their power. Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot had to make several major decisions instantly. Wright describes them:

"In the two or three minutes they had before landing, Sullenberger and his copilot had to do the following vital things (along with plenty of other tasks that we amateurs wouldn’t understand). They had to shut down the engines. They had to set the right speed so that the plane could glide as long as possible without power. (Fortunately, Sullenberger is also a gliding instructor.) They had to get the nose of the plane down to maintain speed. They had to disconnect the autopilot and override the flight management system. They had to activate the “ditch” system, which seals vents and valves, to make the plane as waterproof as possible once it hit the water. Most important of all, they had to fly and then glide the plane in a fast left-hand turn so that it could come down facing south, going with the flow of the river. And—having already turned off the engines—they had to do this using only the battery-operated systems and the emergency generator. Then they had to straighten the plane up from the tilt of the sharp-left turn so that, on landing, the plane would be exactly level from side to side. Finally, they had to get the nose back up again, but not too far up, and land straight and flat on the water." (Ib., pp. 19-20)

How was Sullenberger able to pull this off? Wright says it was due to the "power of right habits." "You might say it was the result of many years of training and experience. You could call it “character,” as we have done so far in this book. Ancient writers had a word for it: virtue." (Ib., p. 20)

"Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say." (Ib.)

Consider this. When Jesus was hanging on the cross he looked at his torturers and asked the Father to forgive them. They don't know what they are doing. Here, in Jesus, was a heart of compassion. Jesus was not wearing a "WWID" bracelet, asking himself, "In this situation, What Would I Do?" On the contrary, his heart was compassionate and cruciform; his heart was love-shaped. Jesus actually loved (= felt love + acted on it) his oppressors and enemies. This is the amazing love of Jesus!

Another amazing Jesus-idea is found in Paul's hope that Christ might be formed in us; i.e., that our hearts might be Christ-shaped. If we have cruciformed hearts we will not have to ask "What Would Jesus Do?" We simply will act as Jesus acts. How does such a heart-transformation happen? Paul's answer is found in Romans 12:1-2.

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed [meta-morphed; change of form] by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Choose to move your whole being (this includes your physical body) to a quiet place and pray. Choose to pick up Scripture and eat God's Word. Tomorrow, choose these things again. The day after tomorrow, choose these things. And the next day. And the next. Wright describes what happens like this:

"Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say. On that thousand and first occasion, it does indeed look as if it “just happens” but reflection tells us that it doesn’t “just happen” as easily as that. If you or I had been flying the Airbus A320 that afternoon, and had done what “comes naturally,” or if we’d allowed things just “to happen,” we would probably have crashed into the Bronx. (Apologies to any actual pilots reading this: you, I hope, would have done what Captain Sullenberger did.) As this example shows, virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become “second nature.” Not “first nature,” as though they happened “naturally.” Rather, a kind of second-order level of “naturalness.” Like an acquired taste, such choices and actions, which started off being practiced with difficulty, ended up being, yes, “second nature.” (Ib., 20-21)

Dallas Willard has been writing about such things for years. In Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation and the Restoration of the Soul, Willard describes a "disciple" of Christ as one who chooses to follow after Christ. A real disciple engages in the kind of spiritual disciplines Jesus engaged in while on earth. A Jesus-followers chooses to pray, chooses to get alone with God (solitude), chooses to fast as God leads, and chooses to memorize Scripture. God wants us to choose these spiritual behaviors so that, by the Spirit's power, the spiritual benefits of doing lots of prayer reps come to us. In this way spiritual strength and muscle is formed. Willard writes:

"What is discipline? A discipline is an activity within our power--something we can do--which brings us to a point where we can do what we at present cannot do by direct effort. Discipline is in fact a natural part of the structure of the human soul, and almost nothing of any significance in education, culture or other attainments is achieved without it. Everything from learning a language to weight lifting depends upon it, and its availability in the human makeup is what makes the individual human being responsible for the kind of person they become."

What happens as a result is "soul reformation." Willard says: "It is in union with these activities that God "restores my soul." The result is that I walk in paths of righteousness on his behalf as a natural expression of my renewed inner nature. Now my experiences and responses are all "hooked up" correctly. To develop a thorough understanding of this process and outcome on the basis of factual studies would be a major step toward attaining a genuinely Christian psychology or theory of the soul."

"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training." Do you want to compete in life? If yes, then do many sets of prayer reps and worship reps, and then do them tomorrow, and train the day after that, and the next day, and the next...  It is precisely as Christ is more and more formed in you that the striving and self-will ceases.

***
For more on prayer see my book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

For how cultural and religious liturgies shape the human soul see James K. A, Smith's excellent book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit