Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorites From 2013

Below are some of my favorite things from 2013.

Book: Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection in Everyday Life
There were many excellent books that I read in 2013. The one that I enjoyed most, however, was Tim Chester's Ordinary Hero. I've written a full recommendation of it here.

The book's thesis is that our lives should be modeled after Christ's death and resurrection. We die to self in service of others and have incredible hope in the power of Christ's resurrection. The book is full of devotional theology. The best Christian authors can communicate theology in a practical way, that lifts the heart of the reader into worshiping God. Tim Chester excels in writing devotional theology. Two significant and helpful themes, at least to me, that run through Ordinary Hero are Eschatology and the Kingdom. Ordinary Hero convinced me to model my own life in the service of Christ's death and the hope of His resurrection.

Album: Love is Everything by George Strait
George Strait has rightly been established as the "King of Country." Rightly so, as he has sold millions of albums and holds the most #1 hit singles of any artist and any genre, ever. In 2013, he took home the highest annual award in country music, the prestigious CMA Entertainer of the Year Award.  In taking the award, he beat out  Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan,  Blake Shelton, and beauty Taylor Swift.  Strait, once again established himself as the top artist in country music against this new generation of country starts: Taylor Swift is on top of the music world, Jason Aldean sings about trains, Blake Shelton is forgettable, and Luke Bryan is beyond annoying.  

In an age of country music where the genre is losing its identity to pop-ish sound and redneck glorification, Strait stands uncompromisingly. Love is Everything features his unrelenting, iconic, country twang: pop and redneck free. Some favorite songs of mine on the new album are the cheesy, but romantic "I Got a Car," whiny "I Can't Go on Dying Like This," cheerful "I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing" and, of course epic, "Love is Everything." By far, however, my absolute favorite track on the album is "Give it All We Got Tonight." It was Strait's 60th #1 hit and should be establish itself as one of his many classics.


TV Show:  Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad wrapped up in the fall of 2013.  I started watching Breaking Bad because I was home sick. Breaking Bad is set and filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  What I discovered in Breaking Bad was a tragic portrayal of the destruction sin brings. Contrary to popular Christian perception, Breaking Bad does not glorify or romanticize a life of vice. In reality, it portrays the devastation the pursuit of money brings upon the main character, Walter White. The cancer stricken high school chemistry teacher begins to cook meth in his desperate attempt to meet the needs of his family. In his pursuit of money, Walt fractures his family, destroying the very thing he tried to save. As the story unfolds Walter White turns increasingly dark as he becomes less and less the awkward high school teacher and more the lethal Heisenberg. Breaking Bad is a dark drama that exposes its viewers to the tragedy of sin. 

Movie(s): Pacific Rim/ST: Into Darkness 
Being a Trekkie, how could I possibly not place Star Trek: Into Darkness in one of the best movies I've seen all year? The movie wasn't perfect, Uhura was just terrible, but I liked it. You can read my review of it here

The biggest surprise movie of the year for me was Pacific Rim. I didn't even want to watch the movie thanks to some cheesy trailers, but some friends convinced me to go and I'm glad I did. The movie is about giant alien monsters that come out of an inter-dimensional portal in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. These creatures called Kaijus are combated by man made humanoid metal giants called Jaegers. The movie consists of the Jaegers beating the blue blood out of the Kaijus. That's it. And it's awesome. 

Pacific Rim is basically just a cool combination of Power Rangers meets Cloverfield meets Godzilla.  If Pacific Rim wasn't so nostalgically awesome, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty would have taken its place. But, alas, giant war machines battling ugly monsters is going to win my heart every single time.

Trip: Dallas
In October, I had the opportunity to travel to Dallas, Texas to watch the Dallas Cowboys host the Denver Broncos. The weekend adventure was a blast. If we're Facebook friends you can see pictures from the trip here.

The trip began on a Friday afternoon. Leaving for the airport two hours before my flight took off, I thought I was going to have more than enough time to spare in the airport. An accident on I-85 made a fifteen minute drive an hour and a half one. It was total madness. Finally I reached the crowded airport and boarded the crowded plane. Friday night's dinner was a delicious steak.

Saturday was a fun trip to the Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop and the mall. Saturday night we went to Cowboys Stadium (yes, I refuse to call it's lame name AT&T Stadium) to watch Notre Dame take on Arizona State. The stadium took my breath away. Only a place of this magnitude is worthy of the most prestigious team in all of sports, the Dallas Cowboys.

Sunday was the real treat of the trip. That morning I was wearily pouring myself a cup of coffee. I turned around and there stood Dallas Cowboys starting right tackle Doug Free, #68. "You're Doug Free," I said. "Ya," he replied. I asked him if I could take a picture and he agreed. I went into panic mode when I couldn't find anyone to take a picture of us. That's when two Cowboys fans walked by and I asked if they could take a picture. After the picture, Free and I talked for a little while and I told him he was playing awesome this year and to keep it up.  In my own managing of the Cowboys in Madden I had cut him. After the trip, I signed him back on the team. He was a cool guy.

The game later that afternoon was one of the most exciting games I have ever seen. Tony Romo had the best game of his career throwing for 506 yds and 5 Tds, completing 69% of his passes for a 140.0 QB rating. In every way he outplayed future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, with ridiculous plays like this: 

Monday, December 23, 2013

For All the World He Came: An Arminian Advent Reflection

Universal Fall and Redemption
Humanity is unique. It is the pinnacle of God's creation. The universe, world, and its inhabitants were spoken into existence (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24). Man, alone, was formed by God (Gen. 2:7) and had life breathed into him (Gen. 2:7). The Creator displayed an affectionate intimacy with this creation that would incredibly bear His own image (Gen. 1:27). Mankind was created not out of necessity but out of the surging overflow of God's love. God's good love crafted in man the capacity to enjoy relationship with his Creator.

Adam, the first man, enjoyed this intimacy with God. Early man walked with God. But Adam sinned. He rebelled against his good, kind, Creator and Companion. Humanity plunged deep into the harsh consequences of sin, taking the world with it (Rom. 8:22). Man, now, was faced with being separated from the tender Companion. He, now, would meet death, physically and spiritually. Existence, now, was not the cool of Eden but the scorching pain and suffering of a broken world. Mankind was drowning in the ocean of his own making. He was now "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1).
But the King, Lord of the Universe, did not stand by while humanity damned itself. This King is kind. He is good. This King condescended to the world.  In Christ, the transcendent God became man. He joined humanity in its broken world. From child sacrifice to good works, Humanity has crafted religions of all varieties that seek to appease God for salvation. The liberating truth is that the good King gave Himself for humanity's salvation.

So the God-man Christ, came. The arrival of the long anticipated King came in the stink of a manger. Empowered by the Holy Spirit (Ac. 10:38) Christ was the perfect man. He lived the life Adam never could for the sake of the whole world. Adam brought death to all and Christ through death, brought life to all (Rom. 5:12-21). This atonement,  the laying of all our sin on him was predicted long before His arrival (Is. 53:6). Christ was rightly identified by John as the "Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the whole world" (Jn. 1:29). His atoning death was for the sins of the entire world (1 Jn. 2:2). He "tasted death for everyman" (Heb. 2:9)  so that all may live (2 Cor. 5:14-15). His death was a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6). He died even for His enemies (Rom. 5:8, 10 ), and those that deny Him (2 Pet. 2:1 ). His death was the reconciliation of all things to Himself, including His prized image bearers: humanity (2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:20). 

"Whoever has seen me has seen the Father," said Jesus (Jn. 14:9). Christ, God the Son, is the fullest picture of the Father (Col. 2:9). It was the Father that in the most well known verse in all of the Bible, loved the world so much that He gave His Son for its redemption (Jn. 3:16). He sent "His Son to be Savior of the World" (1 Jn. 4:14), because He is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 2:9). Because of Adam's sin He "consigned all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all" (Rom. 11:32). He commands "all people everywhere to repent" (Ac. 17:30). He is kind enough, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, to draw all men to Himself (Jn. 6:44; Jn. 12:32). His grace has "appeared, bringing salvation for all people" (Tit. 2:11).

Advent and Arminianism
Advent is a rich season that allows us to focus our minds and hearts on the glorious mystery of God become man. This season of worshipful, thankful anticipation is for all Christians everywhere. Advent is broader than Arminianism. Much broader. But Advent has a different expression of joy for Arminians, though, than non-Arminians.

The theology opposed to Arminianism views Christ's atonement on the cross as a particular redemption for the elect alone. Though God could irresistibly redeem the non-elect, He leaves them in sin so He can display His justice in their eternal, fiery damnation.  What, then, did His atonement accomplish for them? It appeased His wrath so they wouldn't be destroyed right now. Presently, they can enjoy life. God's goodness is preserving them in this life. They enjoy God's grace temporally but will experience His wrath in Hell, eternally. God's love for them displayed on the cross is temporary, earthly, existence before their God-determined eternal misery in the damnation of Hell fire.

Against this theology of shallow, meaningless, love, Arminians express joy and delight in the birth of Christ because they see the love of God displayed for all the world. The Triune God acted in full force for all of humanity's redemption. The Father willed, the Son submitted, and the Spirit empowered Jesus Christ on His mission from the cradle to the cross.

For all the world the King came. He joined His creatures, partaking in humanity: eating, sleeping, weeping. In the fullest expression of love, this King laid His life down for everyone. He now works to expand His Kingdom by wooing His rebellious creatures with His love, inviting them to submit to His kind lordship.

Advent and its worshipful culmination in Christmas is the celebration of this King's universal, redemptive condescension. Anticipating His blessed nativity, we remember our own sinful hearts, desperately in need of a Savior. Surrounded by family and friends, we remember His love for all. In our giving of gifts, we reflect the King who gave Himself as the greatest gift to all of mankind. Christmas is the yearly reminder of the loving God, King of all, who gave Himself for all. 

Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.
~Charles Wesley

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pwned by Minnick

Mark Minnick, Pastor and Professor
Exposure to Exposition
Mark Minnick is a premier expositor of Scripture. In my estimation, the seminary professor and pastor, is on the same level as John MacArthur in his ability to articulate the truth of a text . Besides John MacArthur, and my own pastor Dan Mauldin, no one pastor has shaped my philosophy of preaching more than Mark Minnick. I highly esteem this man. He is one of the kindest professors I've ever had. During my undergrad years, I attended Mount Calvary. It was essential to my preaching development. When I came to BJU as an ignorant freshman, I wanted passion and excitement from preachers. Deep down, though I never vocalized it, I thought that real preaching was the gusto of evangelists. That was powerful preaching. As I matured in my thinking, however, I saw that the power of preaching was not the preacher, it was the Word of God, itself. Real preaching is not macho gusto. Real preaching is faithful explanation of the Scripture. The Word of God is the power. Which is why Bible exposition (explanation) is so vital. The preacher acts as the mouthpiece, the messenger, the herald of the King. It is not his job to create the message. His job is to proclaim the message.  

My understanding of preaching as exposition, and my love for Bible explanation grew under Kerry McGonigal in Homiletics, called "Pulpit Speech" in those days.  With McGonigal in the classroom, John Piper and John MacArthur on the iPod, I was being exposed to excellent preaching philosophy, reading superb preaching texts, and hearing some of the finest preaching available. It was in the middle of this expository preaching immersion, that I first began to attend Mount Calvary Baptist Church, but for less than stellar motives. The reason I attended my first Sunday was that I was faced with a dilemma. The Dallas Cowboys were hosting the New York Giants for the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. The game began on Sunday night when I would normally be in church. Mount Calvary offered an early service, so it was to Mount Calvary I went. What I discovered there astounded me. Here was eloquent, clear, exposition of Scripture. In case you're wondering, the Cowboys lost tragically that night. I was at Mount Calvary every Sunday thereafter. I was hooked. I wanted my preaching to be like his. I honestly believe that central to my homiletical education was weekly exposure to Mark Minnick's exposition of Scripture. 

Getting Pwned
Fast forward a couple of years to present day. I'm in an incredible course taught by Dr. Minnick, "Exposition of Paul's Shorter Epistles." Our final assignment is a sermon on one of two controversial passages: 1 Timothy 2:9-15 or 1 Timothy 5:11-15. I picked 2:9-15.  In all the busyness of semester's end, I was starting to feel the pressure of getting all of my major projects done. The sermon was going well and I was making pretty good time. Everything was going my way, until I came across the final three verses of the passage:
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
It was getting late and I was exhausted. Not right now, I don't need this, I thought.  I didn't have time to research this and find out what these confusing three verses meant. So I wrote the following explanation:
Paul is clearly not arguing for salvation by child birth. If that were the case he would be contradicting his other teaching of salvation by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). This is a difficult passage to understand. "Whatever it means to be 'saved through childbearing'," Mounce comments, "this salvation must be accompanied by faith, love, holiness and modesty. The of salvation in the [Pastoral Epistles] is fully Pauline. Salvation is through God's grace and mercy, appropriated by believers through faith" (Mounce, 143-144).
I was feeling pretty good about my ambiguous explanation.  Mounce was the expert, after all, and he didn't have a straightforward answer. So I quoted the expert, printed the sermon and called it a night. 

When I got my sermon returned to me, I saw that Dr. Minnick had written this in the column next to the explanation I gave for vss. 13-15:
If you can't read the fancy handwriting in this quality iPhone 4 picture, this is what he wrote:
Some careful, detailed interpret. needed here. Don't short change your people like this. They may never again have the chance to hear someone expound this passage accurately. 
Pastoral Care
"Short change your people,"ouch! Josh, I thought, you just got pwned! Didn't Dr. Minnick understand that the expert Mounce didn't even have an explanation? Didn't Dr. Minnick know that I was very busy and didn't have time to research this? 

And that's when it hit me. He was absolutely right. If, as pastor, I gave this as an explanation for this verse that was not only short changing my people, that was pastoral malpractice! As heralds of the King, our job is to care for the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2). Essential to shepherding God's people is the exposition of the Scripture. Because, after all, the Word of God is the power through which the Holy Spirit works. It is through the foolishness of preaching that God works in the souls of people (1 Cor. 1:18-31). 

Expository preaching is essential to proper pastoral care. In the pressure of pressing assignments and fatigue I took a short cut and I was wrong. I have no doubt that in the ministry, short cutting research and study is a temptation. In Utopia, pastors probably have 30-40 hours to prepare sermons. But, here, in the real world pastors are hard pressed with other obligations. Counseling, caring for the sick, cleaning toilets-a pastor is a man who wears many hats and is pulled in a thousand different directions. It may very well be that in the ministry, sermon prep can fall to frantic, late Saturday nights.  But, we cannot take shortcuts. We must study and dig deep until we understand the meaning of the text. 

I recently talked to a man who expressed to me his annoyance at how his pastor will occasionally say, "now, we don't have time to turn here" when developing a point. "That's why we're here, pastor," he said, "take the time, teach us." Last winter, I was preaching and apologized to the congregation that I took so long to develop a point. After the sermon a man I greatly respect said, "Josh, you did a great job, but one thing: don't apologize for taking time to explain. That's what we're here for." 

The people of God crave clear teaching, even if it takes time to work through a paragraph, chapter or book, line by line. Jesus, Himself the great expositor, "beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Lk. 24:27). The church is craving Bible exposition. They don't need a pastor's opinion about this or that. They don't need his own spiritual convictions forced on them or his creative applications to their lives. They need clear, simple, explanation of the meaning of the text. They don't need ambiguous language given by New Testament scholars. They don't need their pastors to take shortcuts, even if the pastors are pressed and exhausted. In preaching, anything less than clear, detailed, explanation of a text is short changing our people.

In spite of my lazy explanation of those three verses, Dr. Minnick gave me a B+ for the sermon. With his  comment, I got pwned by Minnick. Graciously, of course. And I'm glad he did. My preaching will be better for it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The God Who is For You

Life is filled with much agony and doubt. We are faced with the realities of a harsh world. We sink beneath the weight of troubles, some that we bring upon ourselves. The Christian life, too, is filled with pain. But greasy haired, wide smiling, prosperity TV preachers promise us "Your best life now." We know better.  We know that life is difficult. Salvation, the new life lived under the reign of the Lord Jesus, does not promise a cozy journey. All around, for the Christian and non Christian alike there is significant pain.

In an effort to distance ourselves from the false gospel of prosperity, we can overreact. The prosperity gospel makes God out to be our greatest admirer, the great wish granter whose goal is to make us as successful as possible. Reaction can be a distortion of God's character by over emphasizing His wrath, justice and holiness. As a result, sometimes we think that God is waiting for us to mess up so that He can punish us. In the mire of it all, its easy to slip off a rock of unrelenting surety: God loves you and He is for you. For the elect, God's chosen children, the Bible makes an amazing claim:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? ~Romans 8:31-32

The Cross 
Though the verse was meant to bring comfort, it troubled me greatly. We are told that God is for us, and that He gave His Son up for us. But how does that bring comfort? God gave up His Son for me. And I'm supposed to trust that? What kind of Father would allow His own Son to die for others?  I was being asked to trust someone who had His own Son killed, and that brought no comfort whatsoever. If the Father was willing to allow His own Son's death, what implications did that have for me? How could you trust someone that planned the death of His Son?

Then it clicked. That's exactly why I can trust Him. The Father planned for the great exchange. Christ, the Son, took my place. He paid for blood price for my sins. God as Father gave the greatest gift possible, His one and only Son. For me. The Son willingly laid down His life for His enemy, me.  The Son gave Himself for me. The Holy Spirit empowered the Son to live the human life here on earth. He ministered to Him and strengthened Him. He empowered the Son to die. For me. Paul, the chief sinner (1 Tim. 1:15), wrote an incredible affirmation of the cross:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ~Romans 5:6-8

The Triune God acted in full uniformity. For me. Two thousand years before there was a me. Josh Valdez, sinner, delivered by Christ on the cross. And the Triune God planned, sacrificed, and empowered all the way to cross for you as well. The cross stands as the great display of God's love for everyone (Jn. 3:16).  The cross stands as the demonstration of God's love for even His enemies. Christ died for the very men that plotted against Him. He died for the men that spit on Him. He died for the men that shredded His back with a whip and tore out His beard. As He hung naked on the cross, mocked by onlookers, He asked God to forgive them (Lk. 23:34).

Paul said that God "shows his love for us." Presently, right now, the cross still stands as the demonstration of God's love for all of us. Tim Chester observes, "If God gave his Son for you when you were at your worst, what circumstances could ever make him stop loving you? If he loved us when we were his enemies, then he'll always love us. Nothing will be able to separate us from that love."1

We can and should have hope in God as being for us. He is. He gave the greatest gift imaginable: Himself. God is for us. He will always be for us. He does not change (Num. 23:19). The cross is the greatest possible proof of His being for us. The great, marvelous, wonderful cross shows us the unchanging, amazing love of God.  God is for us. He loves us. The proof is the cross. The cross is a reality we can plant our feet on, the base to stand on so we can soak in the rays of God's love.

Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.
He ever lives above, for me to intercede;
His all redeeming love, His precious blood, to plead:
His blood atoned for all our race,
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Five bleeding wounds He bears; received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
 The Father hears Him pray, His dear anointed One;
He cannot turn away, the presence of His Son;
His Spirit answers to the blood,
His Spirit answers to the blood,
And tells me I am born of God.
 My God is reconciled; His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child; I can no longer fear:
With confidence I now draw nigh,
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.

~Charles Wesley 

1 Tim Chester, Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection in Everyday Life. (New Maiden, Surrey, U.K.: The Good Book Company, 2013), 17.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ordinary Hero: A Recommendation

Tim Chester. Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection in Everyday Life. The Good Book Company, 2013. 224 pp.

Tim Chester has become one of my favorite authors. Within the last year, one work or another of Chester's has been in my hands. Chester has a profound gift for communicating deep theology simply and straightforwardly. He is not only a profound communicator, he is immensely enjoyable to read.  Chester excels in devotional theology. The first book I read by him was his co-authored volume Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community. In Total Church, I saw passages of Scriptures brilliantly weaved together for an ecclesiology that was refreshing and convincing. Every book I have read authored by Chester since Total Church has, in some way, grown me theologically, and spiritually. Ordinary Hero was no different. 

From the beginning of the book we are confronted with an intriguing reality. Chester notes that "when the New Testament writers tell us how we should live, they don't often point back to the life of Jesus. Instead, they take us again and again to the cross and resurrection" (pg. 7). From here, Chester demonstrates how our lives as Christians should reflect the model of Christ's life: cross and resurrection. 

The book consists of five major sections:

I. The Pardon of the Cross: Humble Confidence
II. The Practice of the Cross: Sacrificial Service
III. The Pattern of the Cross and Resurrection: Suffering followed by Glory
IV. The Power of the Resurrection: Power to be Weak
V. The Promise of the Resurrection: Adventurous Hope

In part one, we see what Christ has accomplished in His death on the cross. Because of His work we can have a humble confidence and know that God is smiling at us. In part two, Chester demonstrates that the model of our living is in the work of the cross. If we want to live like Christ we must live like He did in death: sacrificial love, service and suffering. Part three shows us that although a new world has begun, there is still present suffering that will one day be followed by glory. Here is included an invigorating discussion of the Kingdom. Part four teaches that the resurrection provides energizing power, making our ordinary lives extraordinary. Through the power of the resurrection we are heroes, having the power to be weak for the purpose of serving. Part five discusses the intersection of the future earth and the present. It also includes some practical ways for us to live ordinary, extraordinarily heroic, lives.

This powerful little book is pouring over the brim with theology. One theological theme that is woven throughout the book is eschatology, the study of last things. I was greatly benefited by the captivating, exciting truth that Christians are kingdom citizens in an eschatological context. Chester writes, "The resurrection of Jesus was an eschatological event: it took place in the past, but it was also the first act of the coming age. The church is an eschatological community: we live under the reign of the future coming King. We're the place on earth where the future is already taking place" (pg. 8). I found the chapters discussing eschatology, community and mission to be especially rewarding and enriching.
As I read, my head was fed and my heart stirred at the wonder of the Gospel. I picked up Ordinary Hero intrigued by its message. I finished it convinced of its truth and ready to model my life after the cross and resurrection. It's a book that I plan on reading again soon. Real soon.  

Ordinary Hero gets five scorching, hot, Hatch Green Chiles out of five: 

You can follow Chester's blog here: http://timchester.wordpress.com/

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

From Tozer to Piper to Arminius: A Theological Journey

Theological Discovery
A.W. Tozer
Like most, my teenage years were monumentally formative in my development.  High School provided the unique opportunity of digesting deep theological truths and facing a world that desperately needed them. At school, we began to systematically examine the great doctrines taught by the Bible. Initially, I looked forward most to Eschatology, the study of Last Things. It was Soteriology, the study of salvation, though, that captivated me. 

Parallel to this theology focus in the classroom, Pastor Deets began a discipleship group. The group's focus was discussion, fellowship and ministry. We read and discussed A.W. Tozer's Knowledge of the Holy. For the first time in my life I was exposed to the fascinating life of the Christian mind. There is depth to knowledge of God that stimulates the brain and feeds the soul. In theology, mind and heart meet. Tozer guided me into the deep things of God. Once finished with Knowledge of the Holy, I read The Pursuit of God, then The Pursuit of Man. During these years, I was continually reading something by him. No other writer shaped my Christian spirituality like A.W. Tozer. He was and still is my greatest theological mentor. Our discipleship group alternated between study and service every week. One week we discussed theology over Sonic drinks, the next week we were out knocking on doors and sharing the Gospel. For a teenager, this was absolutely terrifying. In Farmington you will be challenged by Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics and Atheists. Each brought its distinct challenges. At times, I stood there without an answer. This inability to answer challenges drove me to desperate study.

In the study of salvation I was first exposed to Arminian and Calvinist thinking. As we studied their views on salvation I was stuck. I wanted to be Arminian, but I did not believe salvation could be lost. At this point, I did not truly understand Arminian Theology. Calvinism was appealing, but I did not believe that Scripture taught God arbitrarily elected individuals to salvation. If that was true, His choosing some to salvation was also choosing the rest to damnation, irresistibly. So I left my initial study of salvation not as an Arminian or Calvinist. I took the label of "Biblicist." Biblicist is a rather silly position. In some ways, it is elitist nonsense. Elitist, because its implication is that neither Calvinists nor Arminians are being biblical. Their commitment is not to Scripture, but to a system. Nonsense, because by saying you are Biblicist you aren't really saying anything at all, there is no description to your view of election or predestination. High school ended with me not knowing what I believed, at least, not knowing what my beliefs should be called, but knowing that it was certainly more biblical than Calvinism or Arminianism. In college, however, things would change. 

Calvinism Forming and Flourishing
John Piper
My freshman year, I roomed with a John Piper junkie. I literally woke up every morning to Piper's passionate preaching through the speakers of Emanuel's laptop. Piper's focus was the glory of God in all of life. His preaching gripped me. It didn't take too long before I, too, became a Piper junkie. I ordered Desiring God and had it read in a couple of days. The truths Piper communicated in that book were so true to my own spiritual experience. I had always believed and experienced that life with God was real, satisfying, joy. God was my greatest joy and greatest pleasure. Relationship with him was a liberating satisfaction over the fleeting pleasures of sin. Piper showed me that this perspective was actually taught in the Bible. "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him," became the theme of my freshman year. Much like Tozer in high school, Piper rocked my world and shaped my thinking. I could not get enough of his preaching and writing. I ordered the Pleasures of God and read it hungrily. Once again, I swam in the deep riches of theological knowledge. It was here, that I saw most clearly that Piper was a committed Calvinist. Initially, I was troubled. As I read more, however, I began to awaken to the truths of the Doctrines of Grace. The message of God's glory in the redemptive storyline of Scripture and in the drama of existence became the motif of my soul. In salvation, like everything else in existence, the glory of God, not the salvation of man should be the focus. I affirmed total depravity. Piper taught me the unquestionable Scriptural teaching of election. He showed me that the atonement had a purpose. Christ didn't waste his blood for the non-elect. His death was meaningful for the chosen and that was beautiful. Because of our depravity, our deadness in sin, only God's irresistible grace could redeem us. If God chose me, died for me, regenerated me, then certainly He would keep me for ever. I even saw the glory of God in the doctrine of reprobation. Because God's glory was the central focus of salvation, He was glorified by the display of His justice in the damnation of souls. They were chosen by Him to burn in Hell for the display of His glorious justice. They suffer so God can display His deep, special love of the elect to the elect and the entire heavenly host. My freshman year through the hot summer I was a committed Calvinist.

Crumbling Calvinism 
John Calvin
By the start of my sophomore year, things were already changing. My sophomore year was the worst year of my life. I foolishly took all of my upper level classes. I began Greek. The economy tanked and our family was met with harsh economic strain. I was facing the rapidly declining health of my grandpa. I met romantic rejection from a girl I had liked and pursued since my freshman year. My sophomore year was very dark and I spent it in deep depression. Yet, to be consistent in my theology I had to recognize that all of this was by the direct hand of God. My academic shortcomings was God's will. My economic stress and pain was a gift of God. My grandpa's deteriorating health was a display of God's goodness. I took it like a stoic. The Doctrines of Grace that seemed so rich and enlightening to me the year before were now loosing their grandeur. Concerning the fate of others, I still did not like Romans 9, but Scripture's teaching was clear: If God created people for the purpose to damn them, who am I to question the Him? I am man, He is God.

When I would doubt the truth of Calvinism I quickly reminded myself of its rich heritage. Augustine, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, John Newton, Charles Spurgeon, were all Calvinists. Today, John MacArthur, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper are all Calvinists. These men were and are some of the greatest and most influential individuals in the history of Christianity. But self-reassurance with these men only lasted so long. Life was beginning to hurt. It was more than theoretical theology in a book, it was real life: experiencing deep pain, romantic heartbreak and tearing loss of death. For me, my theology had to be able to function practically.What I believed brought actual, serious, perspective to the hardships I faced in life. Theology could not be disconnected from life. And life was crushing me. I began to question. What is God really like? Why is there evil in the world? Why does God offer salvation to all if He doesn't intend for all to be saved? Why does he command every man to repent, but purposely withholds regenerating grace from them? Why does He with hold from them the ability to repent, then holds them responsible for not? Isn't that the very nature of cruelty? Are my family members elect? What if God made my precious, little cousins for the purpose of suffering in Hell for His glory? Was God truly good?

That last question was the breaking point for me. I turned to my theological mentor, and hoped he had an answer. He did. John Piper taught that God had two wills. At times the wills of God clashed with one another. This view was taught by Edwards and also held by profound theologian Wayne Grudem. In salvation, God's revealed will was the salvation of all, but his secret determinative will was the damnation of those He wanted to save. God decreed against his own wishes? He willed against Himself? I found no assurance or comfort in the doctrine of the dual willed God. It was John Piper who showed me the glories of the Doctrines of Grace and ironically, it was John Piper who showed me its glaring weaknesses. He both drew me in and pushed me out of Calvinism. One chilly, fall morning I reached the crossroads. I was walking along the campus sidewalks, deep in thought. Is God really for me? I mean, is he really for me? Or is that what His revealed will says, but His secret will decrees against? Again, God's goodness was in question. Remaining a Calvinist meant I would either have to abandon my belief in God's goodness or abandon my belief in God altogether.

Classical Arminian
Jacob Arminius
Abandoning belief in God would mean abandoning everything I knew to be true about the universe. If there is no God, there is no objective morality. There is no standard to whom I must reckon with. Without God all these notions of treating others rightly or even the sentiment of justice was completely lost. I could not abandon God. It would be the implosion of my entire existence. It wasn't an option. Like so many times before in my theological quest, I was driven back to Scripture.

As I studied more, I found Calvinism to be lacking in its account of Scripture's whole teaching. The character of God I discovered in entirety of the Bible was one of immense compassion. He is One who describes His relationship with humans as a lover wooing and striving for newly rekindled love with an unfaithful bride. He is One who feels the pain of rejected love. He is One who is actually hurt by the actions of His creatures. This God who is love, made an atonement for every human being and desires the salvation of everyone. This was the character of God that I had known before my conversion to Calvinism. Even Romans 9 wasn't a chapter to be feared. It is in the context of God's dealing with Israel. This discussion spans from Romans 9 and goes through Romans 11. It must be read with Jeremiah 18. My study of Scripture no longer allowed me to remain a Calvinist.

I didn't embrace Arminianism right away. In fact, I wasn't comfortable at all with the label Arminian. Arminians, after all, believed that you could lose your salvation and that man was the primary mover in salvation. At that time I didn't understand what Arminians actually believed. As time moved on, however, I was intrigued by Arminian Theology and so I began to study it for myself.

The first book I bought was Roger E. Olson's terrific Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Olson, a crusading Arminian, clarified all of my misgivings and misconceptions about Jacob Arminius and the theology that bears his name. Here I learned that the primary concern of Arminian theology was not the free will of man but the character of God. I learned that the two biggest proponents of Arminian theology, Jacob Arminius and John Wesley both taught a strong, reformed view of original sin and total depravity. Without God's prevenient grace man was without hope. I was surprised to see that the possibility of falling away from the faith was not a settled topic in Arminian thinking. To be Arminian did not necessitate the abandonment of perseverance of the saints.

I began to read Arminius for himself. To my great surprise, I found much in common with him. My study of Arminian thought continued with Thomas C. Oden's helpful work The Transforming Power of Grace. Arminian theology was an expression, a description of my own interpretation of Scripture. I discovered that I was Arminian. And that was ok. 

As it turns out, with the exception of my brief stay in Calvinism, I had always been Arminian. A.W. Tozer, who had so profoundly shaped my theological thinking in high school, was a thorough Arminian. As I read him today, my mind is still fed and my soul stirred. I still love John Piper and John MacArthur. I consume their books.  I listen to their sermons. I'm built up by them. I still have deep, deep, sympathies for Calvinism. I still see the glory of God as the motif of my life. My life's goal is to make much of Him. I rejected Calvinism because I could not live life as a Calvinist. I could not believe both that Calvinism was true and that God is good. For me, and Arminius, and Wesley, God's goodness is the central burden of Arminian theology. I greatly appreciate Calvinism, am enthusiastic about the Young, Restless and Reformed, and still read, enjoy, and glean much from Calvinist theology. But ultimately, I'm an Arminian. My soteriological journey has led me here. I'm an Arminian who affirms total depravity. I'm an Arminian who believes in the beautiful, necessary, drawing of God without which no one would ever come to the Father. I'm an Arminian who believes and submits to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I'm an Arminian who embraces the perseverance of the saints. I'm a Classical Arminian.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Journey East

Three brave souls embarked on an epic adventure across the country. This is their story.
The Journey East from Josh Valdez on Vimeo.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Goodbye's Pain
We have been crafted to enjoy relationships. Delight is found in conversation over coffee or over the table, warm laughter, or even a movie sharing. We feel immense health even in pain when in the presence of a friend or family. Most strive for relationally fulfillment in the queen of relationships: marriage. Experiencing life together is a great pleasure given to us by our relational God. Experience sharing, life sharing, is soul weaving.

Which is why goodbyes are so painful. When people are knit together through companionship as friends or through blood as family, saying goodbye hurts. The tearing of this relational thread is painful, even if it's only temporary. Going to college very far from home has provided me ample opportunities to say goodbye. The tight knot in the throat, the hot tears, and the last hugs are familiar. I've had to say goodbye to friends, and family. Some, for a long time. In these years away from home goodbye has been consistently present. Death has brought goodbye. Job transfers have brought goodbye. Life has brought goodbye. 

Paul's Goodbyes
"And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship." (Acts 20:36-38).
Some Christians see emotions as a bother. Especially the "negative" ones like sadness,  and depression. If someone is depressed they can't be right with God, because someone right with God wouldn't experience sorrow or depression. It is sin. Christians are to be happy, even when being broken under pain.  The heart must be put in its place, regulated by the mind. This artificial, heavy burden, is foreign to the Scriptures. Humans aren't a unity of conflicting parts. We aren't a thinking part and a feeling part. We are a mysterious whole. At times, we think a certain way because of how we feel, and we feel a certain way because of how we think.  Right spirituality doesn't demand an all the time emotional high.

Acts 20:36-21:16 records Paul's journey to Jerusalem. It was a sad tripped, filled with many goodbyes. Here, we have a precious picture of Paul and the Ephesians elders' raw humanity. "There was much weeping," records Luke. The elders "embraced Paul and kissed him." They would not see Paul again, and knowing that pained them deeply. Relishing those last moments together is fitting. Like us, when we say goodbye, "they accompanied him," taking in every last second together.

Later, Luke would record another goodbye with another group of disciples:

"When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home." (Acts 21:5-6)
Here, again, we see the grieving of close friends having to face goodbye. Families accompanied Luke and Paul to the ship. Together, they prayed, then said goodbye." When the intertwining of lives ends, it is right to grieve. Sorrow is a good response to goodbye. This "negative" emotion is not only appropriate, but is encouraged. "For everything there is a season," said Solomon, "a time to weep...a time to mourn." (Ecc. 3:1, 4) 

God, Our Constant
In the midst of our life torrent, the raging storm, we have one constant: God. God, as the kind parent, seeks our good. He cares for us like none can. He is faithful.  He promises us a constant, perfect compassion and unmatched tender affection.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." (Isaiah 49:15-16)
God is by His nature, faithful. His character is described as faithful (Is. 49:7). His faithfulness is great (Lam. 3:23).  It is distinctly His, none other compares (Ps. 89:8). His love and faithfulness are twined together. Amazingly, His faithful love is infinite. There is no end:
"Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds." (Psalm 36:6)
In the joy of friendship, God is there. In the stability of family, God is there. In the sorrow of goodbye, God is there. We can, and should feel pain at separation with those we care about.  In our pain, God is faithful. He is our constant. He will never leave us. He will never forget about us. He is our strength. When goodbye rips your soul, cling tightly to God. He will never fail you. He will never let you go.