Monthly Archives: March 2013

Church Growth or Theological Decline?

Mark Noll begins his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind with a piercing diagnosis: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is there there is not much of an evangelical mind… Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.” Though his endeavor has the intent to survey the broader intellectual landscape of evangelicals, it remains insightful considering the confusing use of the Great Commission and the resulting church growth movement.

One point in particular seems prudent to our conversation. Noll states, “To put it simply, the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.” Consequently, when the urgency of seeking and saving the lost is repeatedly cast as the sole purpose of the church, it seems that healthy theological discernment and discourse is often trumped by that urgency. Unbalanced and unchecked methods, strategies, and tactics that want to “connect people to Jesus” become the preeminent purpose and reason for the church to exist.

But once again, please understand: I am not disparaging the desire to seek and save the lost. Of course we need to do things like this! And certainly the mission of the church obviously includes “calling people by the Gospel” to “connect them to Jesus”…. My point is that we need to be able to have an honest conversation about the theological integrity of how we seek and save the lost.

Lucas Woodford, Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession, p. 98-99


Luther: “Waste Not, Want Not”

We all know the common proverb: Lay in store for the rainy day and conserve, for eventually it will fill a need. It is a miserable, dysfunctional household where a tippler runs through everything and nothing remains for an emergency; likewise where a housewife is not frugal. We’re reminded of the man who said to his wife, Careful, Elsa, careful, lest we become rich and prodigal. The same principle applies in other situations as well. It becomes intolerable in the church when it has lazy pastors and satiated, discontented people weary of hearing God’s Word; and in the school when students are indifferent and forget more than they learn.

In these days we have industrial pursuits that are richly productive, if we only had sufficient buckets to gather it all. Likewise, Holy Scripture is available everywhere. The bounty overflows and becomes like crumbs which the dogs are not inclined to eat. Look, you young folks, you ought be like baskets to gather it in. The time will come when people will wish for one page where now there’s an entire library. After these plentiful times will come such impoverishment that people will wish for one single sermon where now there are hundreds. This was my experience under the papacy; I would gladly have traveled to Rome to hear one honest-to-goodness gospel sermon, but there was not even one.

When our Lord God gives, he gives so bountifully that it is overwhelming. On the other hand, when he takes away, he takes it away so completely that not a single kernel remains. Under the papacy there was none to be found who understood grammar and rhetoric. It was the same with the gospel. No doctor of theology could be found who knew the difference between the Law and the gospel. Now we have it in rich abundance; we can read and hear it everywhere, but no one pays any attention to it. If our Lord were to snatch it away, there would be nothing. Moses told of how God threatened the children of Israel, warning them that he would make their “heaven as iron and their earth as brass” (Leviticus 26:19). And when this punishment came upon the people, they died like flies. it was so also under the papacy. When God withdrew his gospel, people no longer knew anything of the Holy Scripture. Indeed, the Scripture was locked and had become like iron, impenetrable to men’s understanding.

Hence the exhortation, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” A good housefather should conserve carefully for the future that nothing be wasted. In temporal affairs a good governor will see to it that nothing goes to waste, as Joseph did in Egypt. He stored up the grain during the seven plentiful years, so that there was a supply during the seven years of drought. So also in the school a student is to be diligent, because by the skills he learns he will earn his bread; and in church we should listen attentively to the gospel while the light shines (John 12:35). To summarize, redeem the time before it is gone. Once it’s gone, there’s no way of recovering it, no matter how one tries. Deal carefully and circumspectly with the bread God supplies, laying it in store for the future. He will not always give a new loaf, but wants you to conserve carefully what remains. If you, however, are going to be a prodigal, carelessly wasting the bread so bountifully provided, you may some day starve when you need it most.

– First House Postil for Lent 4 (John 6:1-15)

Shelter Island, New York’s Most Well-Known “Antinomian”

“I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.

“But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.”

Fr. Robert Farrar Capon

Wetting the Block

I bought a 2013 “Forgotten English” calendar on a whim just before the new year began. I’m glad I bought the calendar. Every day I learn a new obscure English word, plus I learn about a person or a custom that is long passed away.

Today’s phrase is “by the forelock”, meaning about the same thing as carpe diem: seize the moment, seize the day.

The ancient custom of the day is “wetting the block”. The explanation comes from T.F. Thiselton-Dyer’s British Popular Customs, Present and Past, 1876.

The first Monday in March, being the time when shoemakers in the country cease from working by candlelight, it used to be customary for them to meet together in the evening for the purpose of wetting the block. On these occasions, the master either provided a supper for his men or made them a present of money or drink. The rest of the expense was defrayed by subscriptions among themselves, and sometimes donations from customers. After the supper was ended, the block candlestick was placed in the midst, the shop candle was lighted, and all the glasses being filled, the oldest had in the shop poured the contents of his glass over the candle to extinguish it. The rest then drank the contents of theirs standing and gave three cheers.

This custom is from Berkshire and Hampshire. Cool, nicht’s war?

Third Sunday in Lent – Luke 11:14-28

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit

            Nothing beats a clean house. In my house, we do everything possible to clean up the place before we go out of town. After a few days of living out of a suitcase, it’s nice to come home to a house swept clean with everything in its place. Even if you are not going anywhere, putting things away and having everything in order is a good way to live.

Your house, your body, was swept clean in Holy Baptism. You were washed and sanctified. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Unclean spirits were cast out in order to make room for the Holy Spirit. However, an unclean spirit can find a home in a house swept clean. It passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.

The redeemed body of a baptized Christian can easily take in the strong man of Satan and his minions. All it takes is neglecting the protection of Jesus Christ and His holy angels. All it takes is telling the Finger of God that saved you from sin, death, and hell to get lost. You can do this thing on your own. You don’t need the Lord’s help. He’s done the heavy lifting. Now it’s your turn to mop up and keep things tidy.

So you let Satan inside the house. Things can’t be all that bad. You hang with the devil for a while, and then when you’re ready for some old-time religion, you cast Satan aside for a while and welcome Christ back into the house. Jesus is welcomed just long enough to make everything all right, and then it’s time for Him to go until you need Him.

Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. You cannot give allegiance to the devil and to Christ. One must stay and the other must go. You can’t have them both around the house, deciding which one can come out of their room depending on what mood you’re in. As a Christian, you do not live like a Warner Brothers cartoon where a little cherub is on one shoulder whispering the good things you’re supposed to do in one ear while a forked-tail demon whispers naughty things in the other ear from your other shoulder.

Living in a divided household swept clean of the prince of darkness while clutching Christ like a good luck charm is not hedging your bet one way or another. Consider the cost of your salvation. Jesus Christ bled and died for your sins. Yet you treat His salvation as a part-time lover, turning to it at your convenience, while giving place to the devil when Jesus just won’t cut it. You pray Psalm 25, my eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He will pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted, but you pray this Psalm as a last resort. You’re tired of the devil hanging out and making life miserable so you need a break. Come on in, Lord. Cast Satan out of here for a while. When I grow tired of You, I’ll push you out and bring the devil back. I can only play goody-two-shoes for so long.

Your life this side of the grave is not a game. You may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God…. At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. You are either 100-percent child of darkness, or 100-percent child of light. Either you beat down Satan under your feet and rejoice in your baptism, or you cast Christ from your house and welcome Satan and the angels of darkness in Christ’s place. You can’t have it both ways according to what side of the bed you wake up.

Martin Luther’s battle hymn well portrays the battle for your soul:

With might of ours can naught be done,

Soon were our loss effected;

But for us fights the valiant One,

Whom God Himself elected.

Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,

Of Sabaoth Lord,

And there’s none other God;

He holds the field forever.

By the way, “Sabaoth Lord” is not the same as “Sabbath Lord”. The word “Sabaoth” means “of hosts”. Jesus Christ is the Lord of Hosts. He is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Son of the Most High God. When He speaks, even demons and their prince must get out of the way. They are defeated. They know they are done for, but still they work hard to try to prove to you that being a child of God is worthless.

You know better, for Christ fights for you on the heavenly battlefield. He knows your name. He has called you by the Gospel. He has washed you clean in Holy Baptism. He knows those who are His. Jesus Christ has you in His mind when He crushes hell in His innocent suffering and death. He knows exactly who you are when He rises from the dead. This is not a “what are we fighting for” war. This war is the real deal. It is personal. Satan wants you. He can’t have you. You belong to Jesus, for Jesus holds the field forever.

The hard part remains until Judgment Day. The hard part is keeping Satan out of your clean house, where he wishes to sully the place with his lies. It’s easy to quit and push Jesus out the door. Resist the prowling lion who wants to devour you. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, believing that you are not alone in the struggle against hell. Jesus Christ fights for you. The Heavenly Host of angels and archangels fight for you.

The Finger of God that produced plagues against the Egyptians and showed the Israelites the way out of Egypt protects and defends you from the plague of Satan and points the way to eternal life. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He feeds you with the Bread of Life in His Word from pulpit and altar, even in His Supper. Your cries for mercy are answered in Jesus Christ, Who dies and lives for you and provides for every need of body and soul. Your house is swept clean of death. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit