Thursday, July 31, 2003

Missionaries: What I don't like about 'em

I have been thinking about missionaries recently. Not everything that I have been thinking is complimentary.

First, let me start by saying that I absolutely support the idea of missionaries, including the idea that they receive financial support.

My complaint with missionaries is that I suspect (not being able to actually read anyone's heart) that it is one of the most abused "professions". I am convinced that many who seek to become missionaries have their own glory in mind rather than God’s—even if they don’t recognize it. Not all, maybe not even most, but a sizable “some”.

It is well worth remembering that simple catechism lesson: Man's chief aim is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Regular readers know that I am strongly in the Calvinistic predestination camp. There may be suspicion that this view disinclines me as to the merits of missionary work and evangelism. If so, that reflects an inaccurate view of Calvinism. Proper Reformed teaching states that, at least in the normative sense, man must hear the gospel in order to be saved (Rom. 10:13-15).

After all, the Apostle Paul was both the world's greatest teacher of Calvinism and the world's greatest missionary. 1

Now it is true that as a Calvinist I view missionary work different from an Arminian. I think a missionary should have this point of view:

God, grant me the privilege of being used to preach your gospel.

Rather than

God, I want to reach the unsaved and help them to accept Christ as their "personal Lord and Savior".

The former approach is the one supported in scripture (e.g., Acts 8:25,40). The latter is not.

And this does touch upon some of the errors made by missionaries. Here are a few:
  • Over there syndrome This is the view that, somehow, souls are more valuable in far away places than in your backyard. If 25% of Americans are saved (a generous assumption) that still leaves about 200 million unsaved Americans, more than the population of most countries. Now a Calvinistic missionary, who understands that preaching the gospel, not collecting converts, is the role of the missionary, has a stronger argument for going to remote places. He could argue that most of these 200 million Americans have heard already. An Arminian missionary, to be consistent, should go for numbers, which he easily can find at home. In either case, one much watch for this mistake: It is far sexier to be a missionary in a remote and even dangerous place than at the shopping mall near home.

  • God Needs Me Syndrome This is a kind of missionary-guilt, very Arminian, that causes a missionary or potential missionary to worry that people will go to hell if he cannot do the missionary work he desires. There is no support for such a concern in scripture. Nowhere do we read that the Holy Spirit was disappointed because He wanted to regenerate someone, but Paul just didn't make to the right place and so the poor soul was lost. On the contrary, scripture teaches that the sheep are saved in spite of man's efforts, not because of them (John 10: 27-30).

  • I must be a professional Missionary Syndrome Here the missionary is overwhelmed with the notion that he is being called to be a missionary. Maybe he is, but maybe he just wants to be a missionary. Admittedly knowing the will of God is not easy. But I am convinced that many potential missionaries will ignore multitudinous signs that they should not go into the field. Signs such as a lack of support, or other opportunities and people that God is placing before you. If you find yourself saying that is a great opportunity, but right now I just want to concentrate on getting support for my missionary work, then I suggest that you may be ignoring God's will.

The financial support question is interesting and tricky. I do believe that pastors and missionaries deserve our support. However we do have Paul's teaching:
7For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. (2 Th. 3:7-9)
Now the "tentmaking" doctrine is often misused, but I think Paul is teaching that a good model 2 is a missionary who works and preaches the gospel. Paul could take his work with him. Some people can't. What type of missionary better fits the model: A high school teacher who, one evening a week and on Saturdays preaches the gospel to people on the streets of his hometown (while at the same time glorifying God in the manner he conducts himself at work and maintaining fellowship in a local church) or a high school teacher that quits is job and heads out to the missionary field, living on the financial support of others? It sure ain't obvious to me that the latter glorifies God more than the former.

1 Usually when you write "Paul was the greatest (whatever)" somebody will respond that no, Jesus was the greatest (whatever). Fair enough. Jesus did teach predestination effectively. In fact, on at least two occasions He summarized the entire doctrine in a single verse, namely: Matt 22:14 and John 6:44.

2 This is not unlike the issue of celibacy. Paul teaches, fairly clearly, that the model for a pastor/missionary is celibacy, while acknowledging that not everyone will be up to the task (1 Cor 7:32-34). The Roman Catholic church errs in turning a suggestion into a requirement. Protestants make a more insidious error in the other direction. We applaud extreme violations of Paul’s suggestion, looking with admiration upon pastors and missionaries who boast that they’ll have as many kids as God gives them. And to our shame, I suspect we would look upon with suspicion an unmarried pastoral candidate who said he never intended to wed.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Who can be Optimistic?

A common criticism of Postmillennialism is its optimism, namely its assertion that things will improve prior to the Second coming. The world will become more and more Christian. Surely you cannot say, so the complaint goes, that things are getting better. Why only a fool would make such a claim.

First of all, a good argument can be made that, worldwide, things are getting better. But I am not going to make that argument, for it is irrelevant.

Secondly, one could reply to this argument, which is based on newspapers rather than scripture, with a similarly non-scriptural-referenced feel-good rebuttal. Such as: Do you think Christ is really going to return only to find an utterly defeated church? No, your God is too small. Christ will return a victorious King, His Church, through the power of the Spirit having spread to all nations.

Actually that argument can be backed by scripture, but it is sometimes made without referring to scripture, as if it is manifestly true.

Even if we concede that things are getting worse, it is totally and utterly irrelevant. If the dismal state of society alone convicts us that things cannot turn around and get better, then, in effect, the implication is that Satan has more power than God. Do you really think that God cannot usher in a revival at any point in history of His choosing?

The only relevant question is whether scripture promises a victory for the church on earth. If it does, then we must embrace the optimism of postmillennialism regardless of present conditions. We cannot assume that things are so bad that even God cannot alter our downward spiral.

To do so is to make the error of Sarah, who laughed at God’s promise of a son. Surely even God cannot cause seed to grow in an old barren womb is an argument of similar logic to the one that rejects postmillennialism merely because it is optimistic.
1 The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Gen. 12:1-3)
Some translations use the phrase all families rather than all peoples. No matter, through one descendent of Noah, God has vowed to bless representatives of all descendents of Noah.

This is a promise—an unconditional promise. It does not read, all peoples will be blessed IF AND ONLY IF YOU DO (whatever). It is a promise God made, and surely He will keep.

There are three possibilities:
  1. God has fulfilled the promise already.
  2. God will fulfill the promise after Christ returns.
  3. God will fulfill the promise before Christ returns.
Postmillennialists believe the third option is correct, and find support for their position elsewhere in scripture.

But that's enough for now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003


Sorry for the extended absence, I hope to be posting on a regular basis, starting with "The Old Testament is not a journal", below.

The Old Testament is not a journal

The Old Testament is highly eschatological. This is contrary to the usual view, wherein the Old Testament is viewed as historical.

In fact, the Old Testament is best described eschatological in a historic setting. The reason that we don't recognize it, is that it is an eschatology that looks forward to something that (for the most part) has now been fulfilled: primarly the first advent and, I believe, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.

In the "faith" chapter of Hebrews, chapter 11, we read:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. (Hebrews 11:13)
"These people" refers to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc., as well as other great practitioners of faith, such as Rahab. The lived by faith in eschatological promises never fulfilled in their lifetime, such as the occupation of the Promised Land and the coming of the Messiah. Likewise we live with a promise, most likely to remain unfulfilled in our lifetime, of the Second Advent.

As early as Genesis 3 we find an eschatological promise:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." (Gen 3:15)
Here God promises a Redeemer to crush Satan’s head, which is accomplished through Christ’s finished work on the Cross.

The ancestry of the promised Redeemer is refined throughout the Old Testament. He is the seed of Eve in Gen 3:15, a descendant of Abraham in Gen 22:18, of the tribe of Judah in Gen 49:10, and the descendent of David in 2 Sam 7:12-13.

Another eschatological promise in the Old Testament is the New Covenant. We read in Jeremiah:
31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD , "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, " declares the LORD . (Jer. 31:31,32)
In Hebrews 8:8-13 it is confirmed that this New Covenant was ushered in by Christ.

Other Old Testament eschatological promises include: The restoration of Israel (Jer. 23:3) (although exactly what that means is the subject of intense debate), The Day of the Lord (e.g., Isa. 13:9-11, Zeph 1:14-15) (again, fierce debate as to what that means) and Pentecost (Joel 2:28-19).

There is even Old Testament eschatological promise for which there is nearly universal agreement (save for full preterism proponents) that it has not yet been fulfilled: A new heavens and earth:
"Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. (Isa. 65:17).

Do not mistakenly view that Old Testament as having been written as a journal, merely recording events as they occurred. It is overwhelmingly forward-looking.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Persuing Holiness: the Impossible Dream

A trishagion is a Hebrew literary device used to denote an extreme form of emphasis. The thing being emphasized is repeated three times. It is used only a few times in scripture, such as in
As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: "Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!" (Rev. 8:13)
It’s not bad news for the inhabitants of earth, or really bad news, or even really, really bad news. It is really, really, REALLY bad news.

More commonly in scripture we find the use of the weaker yet still powerful, in terms of its emphasis, bishagion. Jesus used it, for example:
Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
Only once is the pent ultimate trishagion used to describe an attribute of God. It occurs in Isaiah:
And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:3)
The attribute is holiness. To me, it is the most important of God’s attributes, and for me, the least understood.

We are called to be holy. And are made holy (sanctified). But I think God’s holiness is of a different kind altogether. There are blue M & Ms (I think). And the sky is blue, for different and more complicated reasons. And then there is the concept of blueness. All the same, blue, but all different. So it is with holiness.

The reason I say this is twofold. And both reasons are nebulous.

First, for all other attributes of God, such as mercy, love, patience, etc., I have seen and understand the attribute when I see it in men. I have seen men be merciful, loving, and patient.

I never met a man and then said to myself, this man is holy.

Second, I think that God’s holiness is what necessitates a redemptive plan that involves Christ dying a substitutionary death on our behalf. Because to me, the greatest mystery of all is: why. Why did Christ have to come to die in our place? God is all powerful. He is a God of mercy. Why not just forgive us as we are and accept us into heaven. Why did there have to be a perfect atonement? What demanded it?

The usual answer refers to another attribute of God, his justice. Justice, so it is said, demands payment. But mercy exactly nullifies that: an undeserved avoidance of punishment; a suspension of the sentence. In some sense God was not merciful at all, he demanded and received payment. Just not from the guilty party, but from His Son. Of course that is just a strange way to look at it. In truth He was/is infinitely merciful to provide a plan of redemption for a fallen race.

But that is a rabbit trail. To say that God requires the Cross because of His justice is, to me, a tautology. A reformulation of the question as a statement—He demands it because He demands it.

No, I think the answer lies in God’s holiness. There are lots of mind games people play about "is there anything an all powerful God cannot do". They are always poorly formed dilemmas. The real question is: is there any power that can thwart God’s sovereign will? The answer is no. But are there things God cannot do? There surely are—anything that violates His character. He cannot lie. And His holiness cannot be sullied by the presence of sinful creatures. He cannot accept us without the atonement not because He is a God of justice, although indeed He is, but because His perfect holiness simply cannot accommodate us as we are.

There is only one passage in the scriptures that gives me any sense of insight into the incomprehensibility of God’s holiness. Again from Isaiah:
Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah felt the awesomeness God’s holiness, or at least a vision of it, and his response was almost suicidal. God’s holiness is not like ours, only better. We are the blackest black, He the whitest white.

We are to pursue holiness, but in all honesty I don’t know how. It is like chasing a forgotten dream.