October 16, 2011

Theological Sermon, Lecture, and Interview Podcasts

The following theological sermons, lectures, and interviews are available for free as Podcasts through iTunes or other venues. Heartfelt thanks are extended to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for graciously making these available. Other theological sermons currently not on iTunes are available through Roberts Library at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

"The Word of God," on Romans 10, preached 20 September 2011 in Southwestern Seminary Chapel

"Globalized Theological Choices for the 21st Century," lecture on Contextualization at the "Sola Scriptura or Sola Cultura?" Conference, delivered 15 April 2011 at Riley Leadership Center

"The Theology of Vocation," lecture for The Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement, delivered 2 March 2011 at Naylor Student Center, powerpoint available here, newsarticle available here

"God's Electing Purpose," on Romans 9, preached 30 September 2009 in Southwestern Seminary Chapel

"The Essentials of Christianity," on Matthew 7, preached 30 October 2008, Reformation Day, in Southwestern Seminary Chapel

"Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church," on Matthew 16, delivered at the 2008 Baptist Distinctives Conference

"An Uncommon Priesthood," on Sole Competency, interviewed by Dr. Paul Wolfe, 5 October 2008 on Laus Deo Radio

"My Son Be Strong!" on Family Devotions, delivered at the 2007 Baptist Distinctives Conference

"Were it So? An Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the Southern Baptist Convention," on Acts 17, preached 20 March 2007 in Southwestern Seminary Chapel

"The Heart of a Baptist," on the Great Commission, Matthew 28, preached 9 March 2006, Founders Day, in Southwestern Seminary Chapel and in October 2005 at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention

"The Government of the Deity: Southern Baptist Political Theology," delivered at the 2005 Baptist Distinctives Conference

July 8, 2011

Life in Pictures

My son, Matthew Yarnell, has a blog entitled "Life in Pictures." Matthew is a budding photographer and the art he is posting there presents life through the eye of the camera lens. I commend his work to you.

May 25, 2011

"He Must Increase And I Must Decrease!" My Son's First Sermon

Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew

Tonight, my wife and I had the unparalleled privilege of hearing our son, Matthew, open the Word of God and preach to his peers. This 16-year-old explained the Word of God with conviction and in a compelling manner, interacting with the historical background of the text, using appropriate illustrations to draw his listeners closer to the truth, and citing relevant supporting biblical texts copiously.

The point of Matthew's sermon, developed out of John 3:22ff, was that we must humble ourselves and exalt Christ entirely with our lives. Fallen humanity naturally desires to lift up itself, but God calls us to a different way of life. John the Baptist had a vibrant and popular ministry, but after Jesus came on the scene the crowds began to diminish. Unlike us, John was not bothered that somebody else was more successful and eclipsed him. John understood that the ministry of Jesus, the Son of God, was most important. Jesus Christ is God Himself and He deserves all the glory. "He must increase and I must decrease!"

Drawing on Ecclesiastes, Matthew showed how all human efforts are ultimately vain. The things that will last forever all come from God as divine gift, and should thus all be focused on God's glory. Drawing on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17, he pointed out that we must see ourselves as mere servants of Christ and simply be happy with doing God's will as our reward. Everything we have in this life, including the Christian's ministry, is a gift of God, and we must use everything with all our effort for God's glory. He must increase and we must decrease!

Matthew concluded by calling on us to apply this truth in our lives in five ways: 1) confessing and repenting of all known sin, 2) getting rid of every questionable habit, 3) confessing Jesus Christ to others, 4) obeying every prompting of the Holy Spirit immediately, and 5) encouraging God's work in the lives of other people. Too often, we do not encourage the ministries of others, but we should. Not only must we increase Christ in our lives but we must help others see and reflect God's glory in their lives. This multiplies the increase of His glory, while we properly decrease!

They were all speaking well of Him and were amazed by the gracious words that came from His mouth, yet they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22)

When Jesus preached His first public sermon, people were amazed that this one who could preach with such authority came from the home of a simple carpenter. They knew Joseph, who they assumed was Jesus' earthly father (though He was actually born of a virgin and God was His Father by generation), and they could not understand how Jesus had gained such teaching authority.

Honestly, when I heard my son preach for the first time, I was personally shocked. My own first sermon was nowhere near the level of rhetorical and theological subtlety of my own son's first effort. Where did this come from, except God?! Matthew is still in the process of discerning God's particular vocation for his life, and his parents pray that he will follow wherever God leads him. However, Matthew's father is very proud of his son's depth of biblical devotion and he is amazed at how fluent of a speaker his son is.

Matthew, our heavenly Father in Christ is pleased when His prophets speak His Word with clarity, and your earthly father is pleased that our heavenly Father has chosen to gift you with lips ready to proclaim His Word. You were named for a Gospel writer (Matthew) and for a Gospel theologian (James Leo Garrett), and you have reflected well on both men, but you reflected best the desire of your heart to exalt God alone. Never stop doing that! Always give Christ the honor!

He must increase and I must decrease? Indeed!
Soli deo gloria

April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, 'Rejoice!' So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him (Matthew 28:9 NASB)
Sometimes, my friends and family are surprised at the intense passion this highly rational man can display when it comes to Jesus. Really, there should be no wonder about the matter, for the passionately reasonable faith I possess mirrors that of the first person to see Jesus after He arose from the dead.

Mary Magdalene initially appears in Luke 8, when she is noted as prominent among the women who supported the ministry of Jesus. The physician Luke informs us that Jesus had previously cast seven demons out of her. Demons are fallen angels, spiritual principalities and powers who rebelled against the rule of God in order to place one of their own in His place. Demons seek to rule the world through the perversion of truth and the subjugation of humanity. To be personally possessed by demons may result in personal harm at the bodily level, but demons also destabilize the human mind. Therefore, when Jesus cast out demons, He did so through intense prayer and powerful proclamation.

Mary knew Jesus primarily as 'Rabboni' ('Teacher'), indicating she knew Him as the one who liberated her with His words. Her mind was once under the sway of the false teachings of the ruler of this world. Then Jesus freed her through His own teaching, a teaching characterized by the authority of truth. Mary's mind had been released from the demonic powers active in this world's ideologies. Her conversion was a conversion to the highest of rationalities, the rationality of the creative Logos, who is the source of right reason. That Logos became flesh in Jesus in order to restore human beings such as Mary to their right minds.

As has been noted before, the courageous faithfulness of the women disciples stands in stark contrast to the cowardly disbelief of the male disciples during the crisis of the cross. Mary and the other women followers of Jesus were the last to leave the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and they seem to have departed only because they were compelled to obey the Lord's Sabbath ordinance. Moreover, they were the first to arrive on the morning after the Sabbath to minister to His body.

Over against such faithful devotion, Peter--the man who claimed he would stand with Jesus until the end--fled before the mob, denied his Lord three times, and withdrew from the scene to weep with guilt. The other disciples, too, ran for their lives. John was the male disciple who seems to have stayed long enough to be commissioned to care for Jesus' earthly mother. Perhaps their nonthreatening presence preserved the women from Roman and Jewish hostility, or maybe there really was a personal fortitude among the women that their public leadership currently lacked. Before the sun came up, out of devotion to the Man who released her from the grip of ideological bondage, Mary led the other women to take spices and prepare his body for permanent burial.

But when the women arrived at the tomb, their world was turned upside down. An angel, emitting the light of heavenly glory, descended to roll away the large stone covering the tomb. The earth shook under the electric might of this angelic act. And the professional soldiers guarding the tomb, men who knew power and how to use and abuse it, were debilitated. Heaven's display of shock and awe left them paralyzed. This woman, once tormented by the deceptions of fallen angels, now witnessed the power of 'an angel of the Lord'. She was frightened, too, but this angel spoke words of comfort and of transformative importance to her. This angel was different, for his power was submitted to the Lord who had liberated her.

The angel told her not to be afraid. He knew that she was coming to take care of His crucified body. But there was no need for that anymore, because His body was not here. Why? He was no longer dead. 'He is risen, as He said!' Through her keen mind rushed those words that Jesus had told His disciples before this week had begun. He had warned them that He would be betrayed, that He would suffer at the hands of the elders and chief priests, and that He would die. But He also said that on the third day He would arise from the dead. Had He done what He said He would do? Had Jesus embraced death and walked right back through it into life?

As if sensing her wavering over the unprecedented nature of the Lord's resurrection, the angel invited Mary to see where Jesus had lain. As she looked in, she knew there was something intentional about this raising from the dead. When Lazarus had been raised from death by Jesus, Lazarus needed assistance to be unbound. But Jesus conquered death on His own through the divine power of His Holy Spirit and thus needed no assistance. Moreover, Jesus folded the expensive linen and placed it neatly aside, indicating His approval of the goodness of restored creation.

Finally, the angel of the Lord over life and death told Mary Magdalene to go tell the disciples, 'He is risen from the dead!' The disciples must, therefore, go to meet Him where He appointed them to gather in Galilee. There, they would see Him and have their questions answered. Of course, we know Galilee would also be the venue for the disciples to receive the Great Commission, which has defined the purpose of the Christian life on earth ever since.

Marveling over these unprecedented events, trying to make logical sense of what she had seen and heard, Mary and her companions immediately set out to find the disciples. Mary obeyed the angel and went to seek out the men who were to lead the new faith, the faith in the living Lord who had conquered death. With tears in her eyes, Mary ran into another man. At first, she thought this man was the gardener and with humble apology, she asked where she might find Jesus' body. Really, she did not want to bother anybody. She just wanted to take care of His broken, lifeless body.

Then, He spoke to her. We can hear Him saying to her, 'Mary,' with the gentle power that only He possesses. Her capacious mind remembered all the times Jesus had taught her the truth, and it suddenly dawned on her that the gardener was no anonymous gardener at all. He had said her name in the familiar way that only He could say it. And her world was changed in a moment. THE ONE SHE THOUGHT WAS DEAD WAS NOW ALIVE! Death was transformed into life! Hopelessness was changed into hope! Untold fear was turned into unlimited joy! Her mind cried out with her voice to the Master who is Reason Himself, and with the greatest passion in the world, she fell at His feet to cling to Him for all she was worth.

Twice in my own life, I have seen a person fall and grasp the feet of another. Such an act is unusual. It is an act of chaste intimacy; it is an act of love; it is an act of hope. Once, I saw a distraught woman cling to the legs of a husband who decided to walk away from a lifelong commitment. Another time, I saw a man kicking his wife with cowboy boots. As I ran to grab him and stop this vicious act, the man's little girl leaped on his feet, hoping to protect her mother. Such an act is unusual. When the Magdalene grabbed her Risen Lord's feet--and she was not alone among the women disciples in doing so--she was telling the Lord she never wanted to depart from Him again.

Moreover, these perfectly orthodox women rendered that thing which human beings render only to God: they 'worshiped' Him. At that moment, the faith of these women became the faith of the first Christians. They had personally witnessed His death for the sins of mankind, they had personally heard the Gospel of His resurrection from the angel, and now they personally gave their homage to this Man, the God-Man, their Teacher, their Lord, their Savior. These women were the first Christians, because they were the first to believe that God had come in Christ Jesus, had died, and had risen from the dead. Jesus commanded them to do what they were already beginning to do: 'Rejoice!' He then untangled His feet from their hands, letting them know there was much to do, and warning them He would ascend to the Father.

And for nearly a whole day, the faith that saves humanity was exclusively the faith of these women. The Gospels tell us that the women went and told the disciples, but they did not believe, assuming these women were just relaying 'idle tales'. Later, after Jesus appeared to two men, Simon and Cleopas, that evening at the inn at Emmaus, they raced the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples, but they still did not believe. Only late in the evening, when they had shut the doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus Himself appeared in His resurrected body to the disciples. Jesus rebuked their unbelieving, hard hearts. At last, they believed. And one of them, Thomas, took another day to meet Jesus, but when this doubter did finally see Jesus, with his hand in the Teacher's side, he cried out with the reasonable faith of Mary Magdalene, 'My Lord and my God!'

Some people assume that reasonableness and faith are anathema to one another. Certainly, there is a difference between reason and faith. Faith, according to Hebrews 11:1, is 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' Faith, in other words, will always require what Soren Kierkegaard referred to in terms of an existential leap. However, faith is, nevertheless, substantial, and faith is based upon evidence, even as it is temporarily formed in hope. The faith of Mary Magdalene was a supremely reasonable faith even as it was a supremely passionate faith. She was not embracing idle tales, unreasonable fables. She had been there and done that and wanted no more falsehood.

No, Mary Magdalene was reasonably passionate and passionately reasonable, because the One who is Reason Himself was the One who suffered the greatest Passion on her behalf. She saw Him die with her own eyes, a spear in His heart, and she saw Him alive again, and she believed. Her faith is my faith, and together, we are quite passionate and quite reasonable about Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. And like her, I look forward to the day when I can fall at His feet, weeping in worship, and beg Him for the privilege of always living in His presence. Noli me tangere no more.

NOTE: This is the third and final installment of three reflections on Holy Week. Please go here for the first reflection, on Good Friday, and here for the second, on Holy Saturday.

April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:9 ESV)
What exactly was happening with Jesus Christ between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday? It may be hard to believe, but most contemporary Christians, including many pastors and professional theologians, have not stopped to reflect deeply upon this question. This is amazing, because it is so central to the economy of the atonement (Mark 15:37-16:1 and parallels), central enough to be considered in the first Christian sermon, the first public presentation of the gospel (Acts 2:27, 31), and central enough to have a New Testament book dedicated to the theology of that event (Hebrews).

The plain fact is that between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Saturday, Jesus Christ, whom orthodox Christians confess was fully God and fully man in one whole person, was dead. Perhaps this is the problem for us. There are all sorts of knotty and complex questions that arise and we don't know how to answer them with our limited theological development: First, how do you understand and explain death? How do you explain that Christ, who is God, was literally dead? What does this entail for our understanding of the unity of the God-man? Did God literally die? Second, what does this entail for our understanding of the state of man between physical death and physical resurrection? Does death mean the cessation of existence, as some prominent evangelicals have held, or is the soul active in death? Third, what does this entail for our understanding of the universally accepted Apostles' Creed, when it declares that Christ was 'dead, buried, descended into hell'? What was Christ doing in hell? Fourth, what does this entail for our understanding of the Old Testament saints, who looked forward in faith to the Messiah, but who died before His atoning work was accomplished on their behalf? Fifth, why is it significant enough for the prophet to note that Christ would be buried with the rich and for all four of the Gospel writers to note that this was indeed the case? Sixth, why was it providentially necessary that Christ die? Could the Father have found some other way than the horrific death of His only begotten Son, whom He loves? Finally, what was going on within the divine Trinity between the death of the Son of the God and His subsequent resurrection? What were the Father and the Spirit and the Son doing in their relation with one another?

What we will accomplish today is not the provision of a final answer to these deep and important questions, but the proffering of a suggested outline that may help us begin to answer them. A way forward to a theology of Holy Saturday may be through a consideration of what was happening on earth, in heaven, and in hell on this day, a day that basically changed the structure of the universe.

Holy Saturday on Earth

Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be buried with the wicked and the rich. Some interpreters and translators (yes, translation is an act of interpretation) want to make a distinction between the wicked and the rich, as if the rich possessed some righteousness, but that is difficult to reconcile with the scathing social commentary of a Jeremiah (17:11), Amos (4:1), or Micah (6:12), or the ruminations of Psalms (ch. 49) and Proverbs (28:6, 11, 20, 22). No, rather than making a distinction between the wicked and the rich, the point is to focus upon the honor of the rich in their death and burial. Although wealth does not change the perception of a person before God, it does change the perception of a person before men. In death, a rich man will have 'honor' even if he 'does not remain' (Psalm 49:12).

Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be buried like wicked human beings but with the rich, because in His death, even men would perceive that He remained honorable throughout. Isaiah and the Gospels make much of Christ's demeanor during His trial and crucifixion. He refused to defend Himself; He refused to curse His false accusers; 'He was led as a lamb to His slaughter'. The stark contrast between the wickedness of both Jew and Gentile during the trials and crucifixion of the Lord and the manifest righteousness of the crucified God-man caused men to honor Him. At the end, after the frenzied, uncontrolled hatred of mankind had spewed its murderous bile upon the Innocent Man, there was widespread recognition that this was a travesty of justice.

Why would we 'hide our faces' from this One who was now the very opposite of 'beauty'? Why did Pilate symbolically wash his hands of the matter? Why did the one thief confess that he deserved death but Jesus did not? Why did the crowd that looked on at the crucifixion and saw Jesus breathe his last 'beat their breasts'? Why did God Himself bring a great darkness over the land at the death of this man? Why would a pagan Roman centurion cry out the very claim of Messianic faith of an orthodox Jew but currently absent Simon Peter, 'Truly this was the Son of God' and 'Certainly this was a righteous man'? Why would a frightened rich man named Joseph of Arimathea all of the sudden take courage and ask Pilate for the dead body of Jesus? Why?! Because all of them--Jew, Gentile, Rich, Poor, the Everyman, even God Himself--all of us knew that Jesus was without sin!

Jesus did not deserve to die. He had no sin. He was the exemplar of righteousness. He was completely obedient in all things to the will of God. Human government and opinion at all levels, from the local to the imperial, from the populist to the elite, from the religous to the royal, displayed our fundamental depravity in our happy collaboration to put to death the only Innocent Man. And we knew it. This is why Joseph and Nicodemus took His body and wrapped Him in expensive linen and spices. And this is why Joseph gave Him his own tomb. After their despicable treatment of the Innocent Man, the least men could do was take His dead body and give Him an honorable burial.

And the women who loved Jesus followed along to see where He was going to be buried. Then they went home to honor the Sabbath. They went home to rest even as they grieved. The human body of Jesus rested, too, on that Sabbath day. But the Son of God, whose body rested on earth, was not merely resting on earth. He also rested in hell, enjoying the proclamation of His victorious vindication. And He rested in heaven, displaying His once-for-all sacrifice to His Father through His eternal Spirit. Did He rest? Yes! His work was done, but the ramifications of His willing act to receive our death continue forever. This is why He could cry out from the cross that complex word of triumphal tragedy, 'It is finished', and yield His spirit in death.

Holy Saturday in Hell

On this Saturday those many years ago, there was silence in the households of the spectators. The Romans returned to watch over a quiet city. The Jews returned to honor the Sabbath law. The women and the disciples rested, the tears on their faces dry, the darkness in their hearts complete. Peter, the rock who became a coward, no doubt cringed in shame and considered himself dead in spirit. The silence of hopelessness is the worst silence of all. But there was no silence in hell that day. Rather, there was a shout in the abode of the dead. Sheol was shaken and transformed forever by the very presence of the Son of God in spirit.

At least, this is how the church fathers understood Holy Saturday. The addition of descensus ad infero to the Apostles' Creed occasioned no evident opposition, because the early church believed that Christ 'first descended into the lower parts' so that He might lead 'captivity captive' (Ephesians 4:8-9). Peter preached that 'His soul was not left in Hades', understanding Hades to be the equivalent of the Old Testament Sheol, the abode of all the dead (Acts 2:27, 31). The early fathers understood that Hades and Gehenna (both unfortunately translated by the King James Version as 'hell') were two different places. Hades was the abode of the dead, which was divided into two chambers before the atonement, the 'bosom of Abraham' for believers and 'this flame' for the wicked (Luke 16:19-31). At the cross, Christ was 'put to death in the flesh', but He was 'made alive by the Spirit'. He then went to preach 'to the spirits in prison'. The 'gospel was preached also to the dead' (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6). Christ thus confirmed the disobedient in their judgment and freed the Old Testament believers, who had a 'good testimony through faith', but who could not until His work on the cross was completed 'receive the promise' (Hebrews 11:39). The Old Testament saints subsequently made their appearance in Jerusalem after Christ's resurrection, startling many (Matthew 27:50-53).

The Patristic understanding of Holy Saturday has found adherents among Anabaptists, Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. Modern scholars, especially those in the Reformed tradition and under the spell of the Enlightenment, are less convinced. However, for those theologians who think historically rather than philosophically, there is a certain concurrence to what the Fathers discerned in Scripture. It also presents a serious challenge to the Reformed idea that the Old Testament saints could be born again by the Holy Spirit before Christ performed His work on the cross and gave the Holy Spirit to the church. The primary difficulty, however, with the idea of a 'harrowing of hell' is that it depends upon a scattered exegetical approach to Scripture, and some of the readings of the texts may be countered by legitimate alternatives. The Patristic presentation remains intriguing.

Of unchallengeable significance is the fact that Christ was doing something important in heaven with His death.

Holy Saturday in Heaven

The author of the book of Hebrews believes that in His death, Jesus Christ brings together eternity with history. (The book of Hebrews was written as an encouragement to Jewish Christians considering apostasy to relieve their persecution.) The author demonstrates from a series of sermons on the Old Testament that Christ is superior to everything, including the angels, the old covenant, the old priesthood, and the old sacrifices. In chapter nine, drawing on the priestly typology of Leviticus, He focuses particularly on the death of Christ as the perfect sacrifice by a perfect priest, who reconciles man in time with God in eternity.

'Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission' (Hebrews 9:22). This single phrase seems to be thrown in almost casually, but it is the key to the eternal significance of Holy Saturday. It is only through the blood-spilling death of the perfect sacrificial victim that a way is opened into life. Because of the sinfulness of human priests, a way to reconciliation with God could never be opened for those who willfully sinned. Eternal reconciliation depends upon a perfect priest with a sinless sacrifice. As for the perfect priest, Jesus Christ is the only one who could mediate between God and man, because He alone is both God and man. As for the sinless sacrifice, Jesus Christ likewise is the only one who, though tempted in all things as we are, is without sin. He is, uniquely, both perfect priest and sufficient sacrifice.

The significance of the sacrifice of Christ comes not only from its place in human history, a cross in first-century Palestine, but from its place in eternity. Through His sacrifice, Christ 'obtained eternal redemption'. As a result, we 'may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance'. The only way the eternal value of a temporal sacrifice could be established is if it were 'once-for-all'. For this purpose, the second person of the eternal Trinity took humanity into Himself through being conceived of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. As the one who is simultaneously fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ shed His blood in human death for our eternal benefit.

His work on the cross was performed 'once at the end of the ages' in order to 'put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself'. The cross of Christ is where time and eternity find their fulfillment. Sin is atoned, creation is recovered, and man is brought into the presence of God with this sacrifice. The death of Christ is necessary, because it is the sacrifice that restores everything to the way God intended. With His death, Christ brought humanity into the presence of the Father, having satisfied the wrath of God against sin and demonstrated the love of God for sinners. The death of Christ is where we find 'the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God' (Hebrews 9:14).

In other words, with His death, which we see so clearly throughout Holy Saturday, the eternal Son of God comes through the eternal Holy Spirit to present His blood to the eternal Father as a sacrifice. This sacrifice is what allows sinful man to find again His way into the presence of God. By reason of His love and in accordance with His holiness, God the Trinity has sacrificed the humanity of the Second Person of the Trinity in order to open the way for sinners to be reconciled and enter the Triune life, eternal life with the God who is one yet three.

This, at least, is how this unworthy man understands this most holy Saturday. Through faith in Christ, this dishonorable sinner may join the honorable man on the cross, escape from the deserved horrors of hell, and see heaven opened to a life with the God Who is, Who was, and Who is coming. I pray you too will believe and live.

NOTE: A reflection on Good Friday and an accompanying note on the Christian calendar may be found here. A reflection on Easter Sunday may also may be found here.

April 22, 2011

Good Friday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5 NASB)
Why did God the Father send His only begotten Son to take on our humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to die on the cross? This is the great question regarding the atonement, a question that demands an answer. Some eight centuries before the event of the cross itself, the Father sent His Word to whisper by His Spirit into a prophet's ear part of the answer. Why would Jesus come to die on the cross? 'For our transgressions...for our iniquities.'

As a seminary student, my best friend, now the pastor of a very large church, invited my wife and I to watch a showing of U2's 'Rattle and Hum'. It was supposed to be an interesting movie, since some of the members of that band had identified themselves as Christians. One song struck me as quite effective and affective. The old blues artist, B.B. King, accompanies U2 lead singer, Bono, to voice confession of personal wickedness, particularly when they forsook true love in favor of crass fornication. That piece reached its climax in some profound reflections. In 'When Love Comes to Town', King joined with U2 to belt out with conviction, 'I was there when they crucified my Lord, I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword, I threw the dice when they pierced his side'.

Leaving the theater, I wondered whether King understood the strong theological realism he had just affirmed. Did he really understand that we were the ones who had pierced the Son of God? Did he understand that sin is universal and that sin, even when committed against man, is committed ultimately and primarily against God? Did he understand that the cross was not only a temporal event, in a particular time and place in Roman Palestine, but also an eternal event that brings all of human time into heavenly focus?

Do we really understand that it was our sin that nailed him to the cross? Do we really understand that we were the Jews crying out, 'Crucify Him! Crucify Him!'? Do we really understand that we were the Roman soldier piercing His side to watch His blood flow out of a broken heart? Do we really understand that God crucified His own Son, not for the sin of His Son, but for our sin? Because of our embrace of pride in the garden, it is the most difficult thing for a human being to admit truthfully and with all of his or her heart, 'I am wrong. I have sinned. I have no excuse.'

When we look at the cross from 800 years beforehand, we must weep with Isaiah, the mouthpiece of God, in the deepest of woe, 'I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips!' When we look at the cross on that day, we must run away and cry with Peter, the weak one who is supposed to be the 'rock', knowing that we just denied our best friend, the one we confessed only shortly before, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God'. When we look at the cross two thousand years later, we must plaintively admit with all of our soul, along with B.B. King, 'I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword'. It is my sin that put Jesus on the cross, my sin, and I have no excuse!

However, neither Isaiah nor Peter in biblical days, nor King nor us in these days, are left without hope. Beyond the lying lips about God, beyond the traitorous denials of God, beyond the sins of the body committed against God, there is God Himself. And God Himself seeks our reconciliation. On the cross of Jesus Christ, the righteous wrath of a holy God against our utter depravity was met with the gracious mercy of a God who is love in essence. For Isaiah, the transformation from wicked sinner to victorious saint occurred when the angel flew with tongs holding a hot coal from the altar to cleanse those lying lips. For Peter, the transformation from wicked sinner to victorious saint occurred when the risen Lord once again looked directly at the one who had denied him and again committed the care of other souls to him. For King, the admission that he was at the cross participating in the slaughter of the Lord of creation was followed by the victorious proclamation, 'but I've seen love conquer the great divide'.

If there is hope for a lying prophet and if there is hope for a fallen apostle, then there is hope for a fallen music star and there is hope for you and me. Whatever your sin, know that God is reaching out to you externally through His proclaimed Word and internally through His convicting Spirit, calling you into a restored relationship with Him. In Jesus, God became a man in order to die on the cross, so that you might have your sins forgiven. Christ took the sins of all men of all time upon Himself at the cross and took our punishment for us. If you will believe, then those sins no longer need to be owned as yours. He has taken them upon Himself, and He has overcome them through His death and resurrection. Confess, repent, believe, come to life, leave the guilt behind, open your eyes in hope toward the God who forgives and invites you to a glorious eternity.

NOTE: When I was a pastor, I recognized that Baptist churches, especially those on the old American frontier, often did not make much of the Christian calendar, the exceptions being the particular days of Christmas and Easter themselves. In my free church context, the Christian calendar was and is often crowded out by primarily secular concerns: American Independence Day, Veteran's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, even the Super Bowl. Such secular holidays have their place, but might it be of some value if we Baptists were to make more of the specifically Christian holidays, literally treating our 'holidays' as 'holy days'?

Mind you, I am not arguing for a return to the saints' days of the old Christian calendars, though a broad appreciation for Christian history could have a memorial value to inspire us to walk with the faith of such exemplary saints as Polycarp of Smyrna, Monica of Hippo, Michael Sattler, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather, what would it be like if we in the free churches were to focus on the biblical side of the Christian calendar? What if we were to seek to integrate the biblical events more intentionally into our daily lives in order to foster a greater appreciation for the impact of the calendar on the rhythm that establishes our lives?

In that train of thought, I once encouraged my congregation to replace our annual 'revival' with a focus on the events of what is traditionally known as 'Holy Week'. Rather than starting the evangelical week of revival on a Sunday and ending on a Wednesday, we started on a Wednesday and ended on a Sunday. On Wednesday, we began with the washing of the disciples' feet. Weren't the deacons surprised when I called them up on stage and removed their shoes to wash their feet, some of them fresh from the farm! The chairman of deacons even unconsciously pulled a Peter on me and tried to forbid me from washing his feet, since he should wash mine.

On Thursday, we celebrated the Lord's Supper and reflected on the fact that God intentionally sent His only and eternally begotten Son to die on the cross for our sins. And Christ Jesus, knowing what would come next, intentionally left us the practice of the Lord's Supper for continual memorial celebration between the Last Supper and the Lamb's Supper, when the universal church first gathers with Him. On Friday, two of our hefty, young deacons brought in several large pieces of wood during the middle of my sermon and nailed together a grisly cross. The shock of deacons interrupting the pastor's sermon was one thing. The visible representation that we human beings were the ones who put Him on the cross was quite another.

On an overcast Saturday, we gathered in a somber mood to remember that on this day, Jesus' body was in the tomb as He conquered hell. But then, oh, yes, we arose early to watch the sun rise together on Sunday, resurrection Sunday, the day when history was transformed by eternity, when death was defeated, when the grave became not an end but a beginning! And our final service was on Sunday at the normal time.

The transformation of the people (and the pastor) in our attitude toward what Christ had performed during that week some two millennia ago, about which some half of the gospel literature was devoted, was palpable. And the effect on the unwritten Baptist liturgy was nothing short of revolutionary. (Yes, even the low churches have a high regard for their liturgy. We just do not typically write them down and call them liturgies.) Alongside this call for a return to integrating the biblical calendar into our free church calendar, I offer a few thoughts today, tomorrow, and Sunday, on the meaning of Easter.

April 20, 2011

The Spiritual Condition of Infants

Adam Harwood, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College in Clevelend, Georgia, answers a critical question on the minds of many Christians, especially parents, about the eternal destiny of their youngest children. Dr. Harwood provides a meticulous survey of the biblical witness and the historical responses and arrives at a most biblical conclusion. The book includes a foreword by Paige Patterson and has been endorsed by Charles White (Spring Arbor University), James Leo Garrett Jr. (Southwestern Seminary), and Rustin J. Umstattd (Midwestern Seminary). My own endorsement is as follows:
Through extensively examining relevant biblical and historical sources, two major questions with profound pastoral consequences are answered in this important book: Do infants inherit a sin nature from Adam? Although utilizing different models, most theologians agree that infants inherit a sin nature. However, are infants, therefore, guilty before God? In answering this second question, Adam Harwood challenges the dominant systematic discourse and properly reorients our understanding of infant salvation. Harwood's careful thesis will stand.

The book can be purchased here or here. Congratulations go to Dr. Harwood for this signal achievement.

April 4, 2011

Top Ten Theological Truths Every Young Christian Should Know

(The following summary of doctrine was created at the request of the leadership for the Youth Ministry Lab at its 2011 meeting. YML recently drew a great number of young people and their ministers together for worship and instruction in Fort Worth, Texas, where numerous decisions were made to follow Christ into salvation and service. It is offered for general readership here.)

The Trinity: The one true God who created all things, who redeems believers, and whom believers worship is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; God the Trinity is eternally one God in three persons.

The Bible: God reveals all the truth we need in order to know of Him, to be reconciled to Him, and to live for Him in the 66 canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, which comprise Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is the perfect Word of God with full authority over mankind, because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, who kept the original autographs free from error, who preserves the text through history, and who testifies its full trustworthiness while illumining its meaning to us.

Creation and Providence: On the basis of His love, the triune God created all things, visible and invisible, out of nothing, sustains all things providentially, and will bring all things to their proper end for His glory.

Humanity and Sin: The triune God created humanity, male and female, in His image. He gave mankind dominion over the earth and commanded him to be fruitful and multiply. God intended the man and his wife for a faithful lifelong marriage exclusively with one another, the man at the head of his family. However, Adam with all of his descendents rebelled against the Creator. Thus, human beings come under a sentence of condemnation to eternal death through their own sin. Humanity was driven from the holy presence of God because of sin.

Jesus Christ: In order to restore mankind and bring him to eternal life, God the Father sent His only begotten Son, the eternal Word of God and second person of the Trinity, to unite Himself forever with humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ was conceived of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, lived a sinless life, taught us the words of God, died a propitiatory death on the cross as a once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, arose from the dead on the third day for our justification, ascended to reign enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and will one day return to render judgment on all creation.

The Holy Spirit: God sends the eternal Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, into the world to accompany the proclamation of the Word of God and convict men of the sin of unbelief, of the coming judgment on the ruler of this world and those in the world, and of the righteousness that is available freely to all sinners through faith in the Son of God. The Holy Spirit comes to reside in new believers, providing them with the seal of promise that God will complete His work of salvation, with spiritual fruit to characterize their lives, and with spiritual gifts for the edification of the church, especially the gift of proclamation.

The Beginning of Salvation: In salvation, when a person hears the Word of God proclaimed and truly believes by grace, the external righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the believer as justification, thus saving him from condemnation; at the same moment, the Holy Spirit sovereignly regenerates or transforms the believer with faith and repentance so that this person now begins to follow Jesus Christ in salvation.

The Christian Life and the End: As salvation continues, a believer is assured of perserverance unto eternal life, but must consistently seek to grow in holiness through hearing, reading, and knowing God's Word and the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification. Salvation will one day be completed in God's work of glorification, when believers shall receive transformed bodies in the first resurrection as Jesus returns to reign. At the end of the millennium, Christ shall judge all with the eternal consequence of heaven or hell. By grace, believers are united with God and one another, entering the eternal presence of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

The Church: All believers must regularly and faithfully worship God with the church, the gathered congregation of true believers, hearing the Word of God proclaimed and observing the Lord's ordinances, beginning with believers-only baptism by immersion as a sign of faith and continuing with regular celebration of the meaningful memorial of the Lord's Supper, submitting to redemptive congregational discipline.

The Great Commission: The church, inclusive of all believers as a royal priesthood in Christ, was commissioned by the Lord, beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, to go to the entire world until the end, to proclaim the Word of God so that whosoever will believe should become disciples of Jesus Christ, to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to teach them all things contained in the Word of the Lord, of which this is a mere summary.

March 18, 2011

The Doctrine of Vocation ~ Scripture, Reformation, Today

Recently, I was invited to contribute to a series of lectures on Work and Economics at the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement here at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Land Center is named for Dr. Richard Land, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is currently directed by Dr. Bill Dembski and Dr. Craig Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell asked me to address the theology behind work and economics. The resulting lecture was entitled "The Doctrine of Vocation: Scripture, Reformation, Today" and is available in both voice recording and Powerpoint format here. Martin Luther and his doctrines of universal priesthood and vocation contributed significantly to my own understanding of the scriptural witness, so he figures largely in the lecture. This was the fourth lecture in a series of six, which will be succeeded by a summer institute on work and economics. Personal thanks are extended to Dr. Mitchell for the invitation as well as the 100-odd students and faculty, who showed up for the lecture and lunch and were gracious in their numerous responses and questions.

Update: Here is a good summary of my recent lecture on a Theology of Work & Economics: "Yarnell: Christians called to salvation, service," by Benjamin Hawkins of Southwestern Seminary.

March 17, 2011

The Trinity ~ Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Recently, Dr. Bob Pearle, the senior pastor of Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, asked me to take three Wednesday night Bible Studies and lead our people to focus on the doctrine of the eternal Trinity. A number of people within and without our church have queried me regarding access to these lectures. Unfortunately, the hour-long lectures were only partially recorded. However, providentially, a pdf version of the Trinity lectures is available here. May God--the God who reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit because He is eternally so--bless you as you ponder His beauty through His Word.

February 14, 2011

Why the Trinity is Non-Negotiable

Four reasons why the Trinity cannot be compromised:

1. The Trinity is integrally correlated to salvation, Christian identity and baptism, at least according to the Great Commission. Matthew 28:19

2. Apart from the Trinity, there is no salvation. We come to the eternal Father only through the eternal Son in the eternal Spirit. Ephesians 2:18

3. The Trinity is integral to revelation. If the Father does not send the Spirit to testify of the Son, we would not know who He is. John 14:26

4. The Trinity is integral to creation. The Father willed creation; the Word (Son) spoke creation; the Spirit formed creation. Genesis 1:1-3

Conclusion: If the Trinity--the one God existing eternally in the three persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit--is integral to creation, revelation, salvation and the Great Commission, then the doctrine of the Trinity is non-negotiable, is it not?

February 10, 2011

Fullerism as Opposed to Calvinism

A. Chadwick Mauldin has accomplished the rare feat of having a ThM thesis published as a book. Due to this rarity, two glowing endorsements from Baptist studies professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a foreword written by a major Baptist historian from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Mauldin's book obviously deserves attention. If you have any interest in Baptist identity, Calvinism, and missiology, you will want to read this. My own endorsement follows:
With this important book, a young and rising scholar, Chadwick Mauldin, enters the intense conversation about Baptists and Calvinism with a novel yet stunningly accurate thesis. Andrew Fuller is the theological giant who led the Baptists to inaugurate the modern missions movement and it is his theological principles that define contemporary Baptists more adequately than the undeniable yet mitigated principles of the Genevan Reformer, John Calvin. This book will set the debates regarding Baptist identity on a new and proper track.

For more information about Fullerism as Opposed to Calvinism: A Historical and Theological Comparison of the Missiology of Andrew Fuller and John Calvin, see here and here.

February 1, 2011

The Church ~ A Bride, A Building, A Body

SBC Life Focus on Doctrine

It is common to describe relationships, such as that between two lovers, through similes and metaphors. For instance, one may say to a beloved, "I miss you like the flower misses the rain." Or, "Our love is forever in bloom." In referring to a flower, the speaker does not literally mean the two lovers have petals, anthers, and stamens. The point in the first statement, a simile, is that the lover longs for the beloved; the point in the second, a metaphor, is that their love is constantly experiencing new life. Such images are not intended for scientific detail. Rather, they evoke profound truths individual words are unable to convey on their own.

Biblical metaphors allow us to understand more clearly the mysteries of God. For example, when Paul spoke of the relationship between a husband and wife, his purpose was to reveal a deeper "mystery" (see the Ephesians discussion below). The relationship a husband has with his wife is supposed to model a spiritual truth concerning Christ and His church.

This is only one of the metaphors Scripture uses to describe the church. There are nearly one hundred such images in the New Testament, images that reveal the church for what it is theologically. Three of the more significant metaphors reveal that the church's relationship with God is one of utmost proximity. In the metaphors of the church as a bride, a building, and a body, we learn that our life as a community of disciples proceeds from within the life of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three metaphors unfold the mystery of Christ's intimate relationship with His beloved church.

Continue Reading at SBC Life

January 29, 2011

"As Chaos Rocks Cairo"

The blood of martyrs, Alexandria, January 2011 (Source: Reuters)


Interview with a Young Egyptian Christian

Ayman Ibrahim, whose home is in northern Egypt, is a doctoral student living at this time in the United States. He agreed to be interviewed regarding the groundbreaking events now occurring in his homeland.

Q: First, Ayman, you are a long way from home and family at this momentous and turbulent time in your nation's history. Have you personally been able to contact your family in Egypt? Are they safe?

A: Yes, I was able to call, but to landlines only. They are safe so far. Yet there is some news that as chaos rocks Cairo many gangs have started to go to different areas stealing property and threatening people in their homes.

Q: News reports indicate that the protests coursing through the major cities began with the young people in the middle classes, as they did recently in Tunisia, but that they have since spread to include all age groups and classes. What are the factors that drove young, educated people into the streets in the first place? And, what do the young hope to accomplish?

A: It is true that demonstrations began with the middle class and then spread to include all age groups, classes, and religions. Our young people have been suffering from unemployment and poverty. The demonstrations have been calling for change. However, the question we should also ask is, "What type of change?" Many refer to two or three requests, but I believe we Egyptians should be more objective in what we are seeking. If we seek change just for the sake of change, we may not appreciate the final result.

Q: As a young Egyptian yourself, what type of change do you believe Egypt should experience in the areas of politics and economics?

A: Concerning politics, I believe we need a new government with a secular nature, a government that represents all of the different sects of Egypt in a fair way. Concerning economics, we need to seek forms of social justice that would help people live honorable lives and that would raise our minimum wages. We also must ensure that the aid that comes to Egyptians from Europe or America actually reaches the needy of Egypt, who are the majority of the people. In summary, we need freedom in speech, religion, and politics, and we need a fair way of distributing the wealth of the country, making sure to empower and support the underprivileged.

Q: With regard to religion, just a few weeks ago, a massive explosion in Alexandria ripped through a crowd of Christians outside their church, killing and maiming so many. In the wake of this, there arose some solidarity between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. How many Christians live in Egypt, and how long have Christians been there?

A: Concerning Christians, the official number states they are between 6 and 8 million; however, I would argue they are more than 12 million. Christians have been in Egypt since, according to tradition, St. Mark came presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ in the first century of the Christian era. Today, Christians make up 15 percent of the total population (12 million Christians out of a total population of 80 million). Yet, ironically, Christian representatives in the government and the parliament do not exceed 10 people!

Q: Reports have come from Egypt that the cry of "Allah Akbar!" was chanted by some groups in the streets, while others responded, "Muslims, Christians, we are all Egyptians!" Most news reports indicate primarily secular slogans in the streets. As you know, in the West, there is concern that the Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest existing political opposition party, may exert its influence to take Egypt in a radically Islamist direction. Does that concern exist for you? What is the likelihood of a radical Islamist government coming into power?

A: Yes, this concern definitely does exist. Egyptians by nature are a peaceful people and we love life. I am positive that the demonstrations started in a very proper and peaceful way. Even when some people wanted to shout with Islamic slogans on the first day of demonstrations, they were asked to silence themselves and shout only patriotic slogans, not religious ones. However, after Tuesday's demonstrations, it was reported clearly that the Muslim Brotherhood called on its followers to keep on protesting. They also called for another major demonstration after the Muslim noon prayer on Friday, January 28, in order to dethrone the Mubarak regime. Therefore, it seems that things started in a great and peaceful way, but then Mubarak's staunchest opponents wanted to take advantage of what happened and they seem to be leading the nation into total chaos.

Q: It appears then, that on the one hand there is a widespread call for change in the Egyptian government, but on the other hand there is the threat of an open-ended chaos that could lead to an even more repressive government. If you could speak at this critical time to your fellow Christians around the world, for what would you ask them to pray? And, are there definite actions they might also take? Please be specific.

A: Concerning prayer, first, please pray for protection for all Egyptian families and for our national wealth, economically and culturally, not to be lost. Second, pray that these demonstrations do not take on a radical religious nature, namely, that they do not lead to a religious government representing only the majority of Egyptians. Third, please ask God that our future government would bring justice and social opportunity to underprivileged Egyptians. Fourth, pray that this new era would witness fair treatment to Coptic Christians, including protection to them and their belongings. Finally, and most importantly, please pray that we Christians of Egypt will have opportunity and courage to share our peaceful faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
   Concerning actions to be taken, the first thing that comes to mind is that I ask Americans to petition their own government to make sure that the financial or social aid she provides Egypt reach all Egyptians, not only a few leaders who may waste it in corruption. Finally, I hope that the West makes it a priority to foster religious freedom in Egypt, including especially protection of the Christian minorities.

January 24, 2011

La vida en medio de la tormenta (una carta para hombres)

For English

NOTA: Gracias, Dr. Gerardo Alfaro, para traducir esto en español.


Esta mañana me desperté y ore por cada uno de ustedes por nombre.

Me imagino que su vida es como la mía. Parece provenir de una aventura a la otra, y frecuentemente una la aventura es una de peligro y tragedia. Sabemos, conceptualmente, que el lugar más seguro para estar es el centro de la voluntad de Dios. Sin embargo, la vida presenta dificultades, aun cuando seguimos a Jesús.

Los discípulos de Jesús experimentaron un ejemplo de esto en mateo 8. En el verso 18, Jesús les dijo a sus discípulos que pasaran al otro lado del mar de Galilea. Algunos decidieron quedarse atrás. Otros fueron fieles e hicieron lo que Jesús les dijo. En el verso 23, se dice que Jesús subió al bote, e inmediatamente "los discípulos le siguieron." Sin embargo, en el siguiente versículo, el bote se encuentra en medio "de una gran tormenta, y el la embarcación se cubre con olas."

¿Qué te parece? Sigues a Jesús, el Hijo de Dios, el salvador del mundo, y Jesús te guía hacia una tormenta!! Este no es el tipo del vida que los predicadores del evangelio de la prosperidad están predicando en televisión. No, la Biblia nos enseña otro paradigma: Sigue a Jesús, entra en la tormenta. Se un discípulo, él te manda, y la vida se apresura dentro de una tormenta fatal... Entra en el bote con el Hijo de Dios, vive en medio de una tormenta.

SI eres como yo, tu empezarías a gritar "Por qué Señor? Por qué este relajo? Por qué esta pasando esto? Esto pasa y luego aquello, y luego mi amigo le pasó esto, y entonces aquello ( y así sin parar). Se derrumbará todo en mi vida ahora? Por qué todo es tan difícil? Por qué está todo tan complicado? Por qué mi hijo no quiere? Por qué mi esposa hizo eso? Por qué lo hice yo? Señor estoy tan confundido y tan cargado y me siento inútil.. Señor, ayúdame! Me estás acaso escuchando? Estás despierto?

Entonces, mientras todo se desmorona, tu te desesperas. Tal vez no en lo exterior, porque como hombres, debemos ser sólidos y estoicos. Pero a dentro, el conflicto de la vida se convierte en el conflicto de nuestro corazón y mente. Y lloramos. Tal vez no con lágrimas, porque, como sabes, somos hombres y debemos ser sólidos y estoicos. Lo que significa que los conflictos internos solo se harán más grandes y deberán manifestarse de otra forma. Los conflicto del mundo de nuestro alrededor fácilmente se convierten en nuestros conflictos internos.

Así pues, como los discípulos, alcanzamos el punto donde vamos al Señor y tratamos de despertarlo. Como ellos, clamamos, Señor, sálvanos, nos estamos muriendo!! (verso 25). Y cuando dios no actúa inmediatamente, empezamos a dudar. Todo tipo de duda se atraviesan por nuestra mente: "Estás oyendo Dios? " Le importa a Dios? Tiene de verdad poder sobre esta vida? Porque permite él que todo esto me lleve de un lado para otro? Tiene sentido la vida?

Sin embargo, cuando llagamos al final de la soga, cuando ya no tenemos esperanza, pasa. Sí, pasa. Miramos a Dios una vez más, y como para sellar nuestra falta de fe, descubrimos que él nos está mirando directamente. Nos damos cuenta de que es real y que está vivo. Miramos que los ojos de Dios se fijan como un láser en nuestra situación. Y la pregunta sin sentido que teníamos encuentra respuesta. Escucha Dios? Por supuesto! El es omnisciente. El lo sabe todo. El sabe exactamente lo que pasa conmigo.

También notamos que sus ojos como láser, nos miran con amor. Algunas veces parece un amor cansado de mostrarnos que su forma de hacer las cosas es la mejor. Pero sus ojos nos miran con el amor más profundo que pueda haber. Ese es el amor que es la base de la creación y la redención. Y recordamos aquella pregunta rara que hicimos: Le importa a Dios? Sí, absolutamente!

Después, miramos detrás de esos ojos como de láser, y miramos que allí hay puro poder. vemos que dentro, atrás, arriba, antes y alrededor se encuentra el poder que creo todo lo que existe, que sostiene su existencia, le poder que hace que todo llegue a su propósito. El está en control. El mira la injusticia, pero ha estado esperando. Sí mira el dolor, pero se ha detenido. Sí él mira la muerte, pero ha estado pacientemente trabajando con su poder para lograr la solución perfecta. Y recordamos la tercer grupo de preguntas que ignorancia hicimos: Existe Dios? Tiene de verdad poder sobre esta vida?

Antes de que podamos seguir contestando las preguntas que antes nos hacíamos, Dios nos habla. Si, el Señor habla. Y, esta voz de consuelo y regaño nos dice: "Por qué tienes miedo, hombre de poca fe?" Ahora, como Tejano, eso duele!! Por que no hay nada pequeño en la vida de un Tejano! Excepto que aquí sí tenemos evidencia de nuestra fe pequeña. Pero, Jesús prometió que le podía tomar la fe tan pequeña como la de un grano de mostaza, y hacer algo grande de ella, no es cierto? Y así lo hace.

Mientras tratamos de entender qué significa todo esto, el Señor se levanta con su poder y con una sola palabra, le habla a la tormenta en nuestra vida, la regaña. Y el silencio es inmenso! El significado de aquella calma entra en ti con una claridad tan grande como la de una orquesta tocando con toda fuerza. Pero no hay sonido, ni movimiento. No hay nada más que tú, los otros discípulos y Dios. Tu y Dios. Todos los problemas se han desvanecidos. La tormenta se ha desaparecido. Y tu te das cuenta que él es real, que Dios el Señor, el Creador, el Redentor, el Padre que envió al Hijo, el Hijo mismo, y el Espíritu.

Y la paz desciende, y junto con los otros discípulos nos preguntamos qué pasó. En un momento, la tormenta nos abruma. Le clamamos a Dios e inmediatamente, notamos que Aquel que creíamos que no le importaba, o no quería ayudarnos, o no podía, ahora nos ha ayudado. Y nos maravillamos! "¿Quién es este hombre que aun el mar y el viento le obedecen?!!

Al reflexionar en este silencio, la verdad que el Padre le reveló a Pedro, se convierte en algo nuestro: Sabemos que este hombre, Jesús, es también Dios. El es el Cristo, el Hijo del Dios viviente.

Mis amigos, mis hermanos, mis con-discipulos. A Dios de verdad le importamos. Tu le importas. Le importa la tormenta en tu vida. Y él la calmará. Y en la calma, cuando venga, nos maravillaremos juntos.

Cuando era joven, un adolescente, pasé por una tormenta de depresión. Dios me consoló con Juan 10:10: "El ladrón viene a robar y a matar, pero yo he venido para que tengan vida y que la tengan en abundancia." Ese versículo me ayudó tremendamente en la más temprana y violenta tormenta de mi vida. Y ahora, al mirar todas las tormentas a mi alrededor, listas para dar contra mí y contra tí, he entendido que la vida abundante debe vivirse en la aventura de las tormentas. Lo único que tengo que hacer es entrar al bote con Jesús y mantener mi vista en él. El sabe todo y puede tomar inclusive mi pequeña fe y hacer algo grande con ella, aun a pesar de mi.

En Cristo,

Life in the Midst of the Storm (A Letter for Men)

Para el español

NOTE: The letter below was written to the 40 men in our Men's Bible Study class at Birchman Baptist Church, which has been in existence for a year now. The letter ministered to many of our men and it has taken on a life of its own among others to whom our men minister. It is reprinted here for easy dissemination. One of our men has received a request for a Spanish translation and that will be posted here soon.

22 January 2011


This morning I woke up and prayed for each of you by name.

I imagine your life is much like mine. It seems to proceed from one adventure to the next, and often an adventure will be one of danger and tragedy. We know, conceptually, that the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will. Yet, life presents difficulties, even when we follow Jesus.

The disciples of Jesus experienced an example of this in Matthew 8. In verse 18, Jesus told the disciples they were going to get up and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Some decided to stay behind. Yet others were faithful to Jesus and did what Jesus said. In verse 23, it says that Jesus got in the boat and, immediately, “his disciples followed him.” However, in the very next verse, the boat was in the middle of “a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with waves.”

How do you like that? You follow Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, and Jesus leads you into a storm! This is not exactly the kind of life that the health and wealth preachers are preaching on the television. No, the Bible teaches another paradigm: Follow Jesus, enter turmoil. Be a disciple like He commands, and life heads into a life-threatening storm. Get in the boat with the Son of God, live in the midst of the storm!

If you are like me, you begin to cry out sometimes and say, “Why, Lord?! What is this mess? Why is this happening? This happened and then that, and then my friend had this happen, and then that (and on and on). Will everything in my life come apart now? Why is everything so difficult? Why is everything so messed up? Why won’t my kid...? Why did my wife...? Why did I...? Lord, I am so confused and so burdened and so helpless. Lord, help! Lord, are you even listening? Lord, are you awake?!”

Then, as everything is falling apart, you become frantic. Maybe not on the outside, for we men are supposed to be strong and stoic. But on the inside, the turmoil of life becomes the turmoil within our hearts and minds. And we cry. Maybe not with tears, because, you know, we are men who are supposed to be strong and stoic. Which often means that the inner turmoil may only build and show itself in other ways. The turmoil in the world around us can so easily become the turmoil inside us.

So, like the disciples, we reach the point where we go to the Lord and try to wake Him up. Like them, we cry out, “Lord, save us; we’re dying here!” (verse 25). And when God doesn’t act immediately, we begin to doubt. All sorts of strange thoughts run through our mind: “Is God listening? Does God care? Is He really there? Does He really have power over this life? Why is He letting me toss and turn and flop all over the place? Is there any meaning in this life?”

However, when we have reached the end of our rope, when we have given up the last hope, it happens. Yes, it happens. We look at God one last time, as if to seal our unbelief, and we notice that He is looking straight at us. We notice that He is real, that He is alive. We notice that the eyes of the God who knows everything are focused like a laser on our situation. And that stupid question we had gets answered. “Is God listening?” Of course! He is omniscient; He knows it all. He knows exactly what is happening in my life.

We also notice that His eyes, which are fixed like a laser on our life, are fixed with a look of love. Sometimes, a weary love, at having to show us yet again that His way is the best way. But, His eyes look at us with that deepest love that ever was, that love which is the basis of all creation and all redemption. And we remember that second odd question we asked: “Does God care?” Yes, He absolutely cares.

Afterwards, we notice behind those laser-like, loving eyes, there is raw power. We see that in, behind, above, before and all around those eyes is the power that created all things, the power that sustains their existence, the power that brings everything to its final end. He is in control. He does see the injustice, but He has been waiting. He does see the pain, but He has held back. He does see the death, but He has been patiently working with His power to the perfect solution. And we remember that third set of ignorant questions, “Is He really there? Does He really have power over this life?”

Before we can even proceed to try to answer the other questions we were asking, God speaks. Yes, the Lord speaks. And, this voice of comfort and rebuke says to us, “Why are you afraid, man of little faith?” Now, as a Texan, that hurts, because there is nothing little in the life of a Texan! Except, now, here, we have evidence of the littleness of our faith. But Jesus promised that He could take even faith as small as a mustard seed and make something great out of it, didn’t He? He did. And He does.

As we try to understand all that this means, the Lord stands in His power and with one word, He speaks to the storm in our life, and He rebukes it. And the silence is awesome. The meaning of the stillness breaks on you with the mind-grabbing clarity of clanging cymbals and beating drums. Except, there is no sound, there is no movement. There is nothing but you and the other disciples and God. You and God. All the problems have faded. The storm has disappeared. And you know that He is real, this God, the Lord, the Creator, the Redeemer; the Father Who sent His Son, the Son Himself, and the Holy Spirit.

And, as the peace descends, like the disciples, we begin to wonder at what has happened. One moment, the storm is overwhelming us. We cry out to God. The next moment, we notice that the One whom we thought didn’t care or couldn’t care really does care. And we marvel. "What manner of man is this? Even the winds and the sea obey Him!"

In the reflections of the silence, the truth the Father revealed to us through Peter becomes ours: We know that this man, Jesus, is also God. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!"

My friends, my brothers, my fellow disciples. God really does care. He cares for you. He cares about the storm in your life. He cares. And He will calm it. And in the stillness, when it comes, we will marvel together.

When I was a young man, a teenager, I was in a storm of depression. God comforted me with John 10:10--”The thief comes not but for to steal, to kill, and to destroy, but I have come that you might have life and that more abundantly.” That verse helped me tremendously through my earliest and most violent storm of life. And, now, as I see all of the storms around me, ready to crash into me and you, I understand that the abundant life is a life lived in the adventure of storms. The only thing I need to do is get in the boat with Jesus and keep my eyes on Him. He knows it all and He can take even my small faith and do something great with it, in spite of me.

In Christ,

January 15, 2011

Beautiful Tunisia: A Call to Prayer

Update: This essay has been republished by Baptist Press. A few photos are newly added here.

Several years ago, alongside several other professors, Dr. John Mark Yeats and I led a group of students to Tunisia in order to study North African Christian history and theology. Today, we see occurring what the media has dubbed a "jasmine revolution," which is apparently the first populist rejection of an Arab leader and the first governmental change wrought through the activities of Wikileaks. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who is accused of having ruled Tunisia on behalf of the economic interests of what became known as "the Family," has fled the country. It is still unclear as to what the form and composition of the government will be, and the interim government itself has already changed structure in a matter of hours as the frantic search for constitutional legitimacy and political stability vie with one another.

The place known today as Tunisia has a long and colorful history. Phoenician traders settled here around the tenth century BC, establishing a colony that became the world power known as Carthage in the sixth century BC. The Carthaginian navy's capabilities, shrouded in secrecy, and the Carthaginian army's tactics, exemplified in Hannibal's surprise march through the Alps, were nothing short of brilliant, even as their religion was marked by incredible brutality. Phoenician ships brought a barbaric religion from the Middle East, which was affiliated with the god known in the Old Testament as Molech. Molech's priests were particularly adept at the sacrifice of infants by making them "pass through the fire." The Carthaginians sacrificed their own children to Kronos, or Saturn, according to ancient historians, by placing an infant on the hands of the bronze god, hands which were then raised by hidden priests through a pulley system, dropping the helpless child into a gaping maw to be consumed in flames. The bones of the infant would then be interred in a small stone sarcophogus, and were often deposited in the foundation of a new building, such as a private home. So many were sacrificed in the hope it would bring happiness and prosperity to a new family. (The Western idea that children are an economic burden worthy of abortion was thus prefigured.) Hundreds of children at a time were also sacrificed during times of war as a way to appease their offended god. The vigor with which the Israelite king Josiah suppressed such misguided brutality is, to say the least, understandable (2 Kings 23:10). To this day, I cannot forget the haunting scene of thousands of small stone sarcophogi still littering ancient Carthage outside modern Tunis. The children paid for the sins of their fathers, at their fathers' own hands.

When, in the second century BC, the Romans finally put an end to Carthage at the conclusion of the third Punic War, they salted the site of the city but developed the rest of North Africa into a breadbasket for Rome itself. Roman culture followed Roman agriculture as it spread through North Africa, south toward that oceanic desert now known as the Sahara, east toward modern Libya and west into Algeria. Tunisia is filled with ancient sites containing coliseums, temples and palaces from the Roman period. The surviving mosaics that abound there are absolutely beautiful and indicate an advanced culture. Christianity thrived in the early centuries in North Africa, in spite of the intense persecution the Christians often suffered. The saga of Perpetua and Felicitas, two young Christian martyrs, still inspires those who read of the suffering of these faithful witnesses. (The ancient arena in which the Christians were martyred in Roman Carthage and many of the early churches are accessible today.) Providentially, in spite of the intent of the imperial authorities, the blood of the martyrs proved not to be the burial of the church of Jesus Christ, but the seed for her growth, as Tertullian noted.

As the church of North Africa grew in both difficult and easier times, it produced a number of very important theologians--especially Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine--who shaped the way Western Christians still think about their faith. Tertullian, whose writings are available here in both the original Latin and modern translations, was a converted Roman lawyer active at the turn of the third century AD. This ground-breaking church father developed the rudiments of the Western understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. His refutation of the modalist heresy has been most helpful to those who desire to see God as the Bible reveals Him to be. Tertullian also expressed misgivings about the innovative doctrine of infant baptism, even as he flirted with the spiritualistic and ascetic heresy of Montanism. The early churches of North Africa, many of whose ruins are still in existence, long retained the architecture of a New Testament faith. There is nothing more informative than seeing with one's own eyes the extant visible evidence of the North African baptistries standing, sometimes in the pattern of a womb, at the very entrances of their churches. Moreover, these earliest baptistries were fully immersionist. The late historical development of infant baptism with sprinkling is readily perceptible, for small raised baptismal fonts were centuries later placed in and over the old immersionist and often richly-decorated mosaic baptistries, the ruins of which have been preserved in the semi-desert open air.

Cyprian, whose writings are available here, came from the Roman colonial elite itself and brought a stable leadership to a church experiencing even more thorough persecution under the emperors Decius and Valerian. After the Decian persecution, Cyprian led the way in providing church fellowship to those Christians who had lapsed under persecution but who subsequently repented. One of his most famous works, On the Unity of the Church, has been the source of both inspiration and tribulation for those churches dependent upon his theology of episcopacy, due to the work's existence in two variant forms. From a free church perspective, Cyprian's legacy is most difficult, for the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers offering spiritual sacrifices was lost in the midst of his advocacy of episcopal authority, sacerdotal administration of the sacraments and his peculiar sacrificial presentation of the Lord's Supper. On the other hand, encouraging all later Christians, Cyprian remained firm in his Christian faith and was executed in 258 for refusing to sacrifice to the imperial cult.

Though his bishopric was based over the border in modern Algeria, Augustine of Hippo, whose voluminous and theologically essential Latin works are available here and described here, spent a good deal of his life in Carthage. The mental portrait of Augustine's mother, Monica, standing at the dock as her son fled her presence for a profligate life in Europe, is one that should strike any Christian mother's heart. Be encouraged, Christian parents, for Monica's fervent prayers and continual witness ended in her son's glorious conversion. Augustine describes his conversion to Christ (and presents a sublime view of the relation between eternity and time) in his introspective and authentically open Confessions, a must read for every Christian. After his conversion, Augustine returned to North Africa, where his works were instrumental in helping Western Christians understand that salvation is entirely by divine grace, as he fought against the works-salvation taught by the British monk, Pelagius. Unfortunately, at the same time he underscored divine grace, he also led the church to embrace the conscience-violating doctrine of the baptismal regeneration of infants.

In yet another controversy, with the Donatists, Augustine argued for the universality and unity of the church, but horrifically through the advocacy of governmental coercion of unbelievers and dissenters into the state-supported churches. In yet another controversy, against the pagans, who were blaming the fall of Rome in 410 on the rise of Christianity, Augustine worked out a comprehensive philosophy of history, inclusive of both the sacred and secular. His monumental The City of God is simultaneously majestic and utterly persuasive. In his 15 books on The Trinity, Augustine established the Western view of the relations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, a view that ultimately ended in the theological division of East and West. Augustine's days ended as his city of Hippo was under siege by the invading barbarians, who would restructure and shape the Europe as we know it today. Augustine of North Africa remains the premiere theologian of Western Christianity, thus the faith of most Europeans and Americans remains in profound ways an African faith.

Although Constantinople under Justinian the Great recovered North Africa, the Byzantine empire could not retain its hold in the face of the onslaught of military Islam. Christians (and Jews) survived for centuries under Muslim rule, and huge Christian graveyards are still in evidence, but with time and the slow persecution of the dhimmitude system coupled with periodic onslaughts of intense persecution worsened by the invasion of the Sicilian Normans, Christianity (and Judaism) were eclipsed by Islam. I can still see the stone blocks with crosses on them that were torn from old churches and used to build mosques for the increasing number of Muslim people. As a French colony, Roman Catholic Christianity was revived, but, especially outside the capital of Tunis, there is not much that survives. During World War II, Rommel's troops battled with American and British armies for control of Tunisia and a large cemetery is maintained there to memorialize the multitude of Americans who gave their lives to push Hitler's Nazis out of Africa. Yes, the first (or, is it fourth?) "Star Wars" film was made in the Tunisian Sahara. And, yes, you can still visit the beaches that are traditionally swamped by European tourists. And, yes, the American ambassador at the time was a fine fellow and a gracious host to this American visitor.

As I survey the photographs of protest-torn Tunisia, I remember the beauty of the cities and, most importantly, the beauty of the people. I also remember the calls to prayer at the local mosque that wafted through our open windows every morning. But mostly, I remember that Tunisians are now suffering. There are many young people who need stable employment, and all Tunisians are doubtless concerned about what tomorrow will bring them. The people I encountered in Tunisia were kind and wanted to know about these wandering Christians, and, with appropriate prayer and cultural sensitivity, they were open to hearing the gospel. This brings us to the primary purpose for this post: Would you please pray for Tunisia? For her political freedom and stability? For the gospel of eternal peace, once again, to flourish in this beautiful land?