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Dear friend,

Sex is like fire. When it blazes in the fireplace, a good fire warms and brightens the room, enhancing joy and companionship. But when fires ignite in the wrong places, the house burns down. Is your sexuality igniting in the wrong places? Are you treating sexual sin casually? How do you know when this has happened? Let me offer a few tests that can rouse your conscience.

  • Is what you are doing simply wrong? The outright evils of sexual immorality are not hard to identify. Our culture makes the water very muddy, and preaches the doctrine that dirty water is good to drink. But the line between love and lust is clear. We are to treat other human beings in a familial way. You don’t ever sexualize a person whom you are called to treat as your brother or sister, your mother or father, your son or daughter. Sexuality is reserved for marriage. You are to protect other people, not lust after them. Consensual immorality is still immorality.
  • Are you captivated by sex? One sure tip-off is that you are preoccupied. When something takes up too much airtime in your mind, when you’re driven, when you must do it, you just do it, you can’t help doing it, you can’t not do it, you’ve got a problem. Whenever sex becomes obsessive, impulsive, or compulsive, it’s going astray.
  • Do you hide what you are doing? Hiding what you are doing and the time you spend doing it is another clear tip-off. Wrong doesn’t love the light (unless it’s become shameless and brazen). We hide when we know something is wrong. When you create a secret garden of any sort in your life, mutant things inevitably grow. So we hide from the eyes of others, from the eyes of our own conscience, from God’s eyes.
  • Do you use sex as a refuge? Boredom, stress, loneliness, and pain tempt us to look for an escape. Do you try to flee discomfort or mask pain? We are meant to look pain in the eye, to grasp the experience, to bring it in hand to our God, to cry out for help, to find refuge, and then to do what can be done constructively, however seemingly small our powers.

If you are being nonchalant about your sexual sin, I hope that my list arouses a proper sense of unease. Fires are burning outside the fireplace. Is something not right with your sexual behavior? You are a child of light—don’t walk in darkness! God’s point of view is good, right, and true. He beckons you. Walk as a child of light—for the fruit of light is found in all that is good, right, and true. The God who invites us into what is good also warns us off what is bad. You may be sure of this: everyone who is sexually immoral has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words. Because of these things, the wrath of God comes on the disobedient. That’s the gist of Ephesians 5:5–9:

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).

Take it to heart. Don’t let peer pressure or the culture deceive you. By the mercy of Christ, you will live a brighter, more loving, and more fruitful life.

How do you change? There are many facets of that big question, but I will point to four. First, the starting point for change is to say, “What I am doing is wrong.” That acknowledgement gets you pointed in the right direction.

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Houston, along with its connected neighborhoods, communities, and suburbs, is being pummeled by historic rain and unprecedented flooding. It’s a disaster here.

My neighbors—all 6.5 million—are feeling the effects of Hurricane Harvey’s 500-year flooding event.

So far 370 billion gallons of rain have hit our greater Houston area—and it has just started. The pictures are nothing short of stunning. Nearly every bayou and creek in the Bayou City has gone over its banks. Meteorologists expect the storm to linger, dragging its rain across our city throughout the coming week. First-responders are working nonstop, risking their lives to rescue others. More than 2,000 rescues have been performed, and with days of rain to come, countless more are in store.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) anticipates years of relief work, the church of the risen Lord Jesus is ready for her work, too.

Christlike in Crisis

As Hurricane Harvey continues to dump rain in the billions of gallons, I see Christlike instincts cresting and rising in our city.

Civilians are assembling their kayaks and big ol’ Texas-style trucks to save their neighbors. Sacrifice in a time of severe weather.

Church buildings—like that of Houston Northwest Church led by my friend, pastor Steve Bezner—are becoming staging-areas for relief. The body of Christ is opening her arms to help her neighbors.

Southern Baptists are uniting together, along with other organizations, to wash the feet of those hit by Harvey:

SBTC Disaster Relief has joined Texas emergency response teams including the Texas Baptist Men, the North American Mission Board (NAMB)’s Disaster Relief teams, the American Red Cross, state police and fire departments, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) teams and more. Southern Baptists in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi are readying volunteers and equipment as well.

We’ve assembled a Redeemer Church response team, brothers and sisters eager to help. They have their boats, trucks, chainsaws, trailers, cookies, muscles, time, and prayers ready for those hit hard by Harvey.

Like many churches across the city, our members are checking in with each other, opening their homes, offering to help however they can. They are serving each other, sacrificing for each other; they are ready to love their neighbors. These are the kinds of instincts you hope to see. Apathy and disinterest are demonic in a time of disaster.

My friends and family—my Aunt Pilar and Uncle Jeff in West Houston—have water sliding up their driveways, heading toward their doors. I’m constantly—and nervously—texting church members for updates. Many are trapped in their neighborhoods and won’t be able to leave for days. One family at our church had to evacuate early because the wife may go into labor any minute.

Christians, we should be at our best when affliction does its worst.

Disaster has the potential to knit our hearts together in love. When the apostle Paul tells us to weep with those weeping, and to rejoice with those rejoicing, he doesn’t mean these are the only two emotions we should share. We should grieve with the grieving, and ache with the affected.

When I hear more rain on my back patio, my heart aches. Our city is sinking. I shake my head in disbelief as rain and sirens blare around us. As I tell my kids to wear their helmets during a tornado warning, I must look to heaven, past Harvey, for help.

Join the Relief

So what can you do? God has a ministry for you: “He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).

How can you comfort those in this affliction? Here are three ways.

1. Pray

I can’t tell you how many tweets and texts I’ve received from brothers and sisters around the world today. Missionaries from Thailand told us they are praying for our church and our city.

In times like this, “I’m praying!” can feel like a Christianized “I’m thinking of you.” But the best way to avoid that hypocrisy is to actually pray. Take a few moments and specifically pray for our area, espeically any people or churches you know here.

Let the pictures you see online serve as kindling for your prayers. The Father is listening. The Son is mediating. The Spirit is helping. When you see a picture, stop and cry out to heaven. Father, help them. You said faith can move mountains, so, Father, move this storm.

Pray for the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner. Pray for the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. Pray for first-responders and all involved in rescue efforts. Pray for the afflicted. Pray for the churches and our efforts to be Good Samaritans and good witnesses.

We desperately need the prayers of the saints (2 Cor. 1:11).

2. Give

A few churches in the area have set up flood relief funds. I trust these churches to do what’s right and godly with the funds.

You can also give to the North American Mission Board’s relief fund here.

Finally, Apple and the Red Cross have made it possible for you to give to a relief fund through iTunes.

3. Serve

As I said earlier, FEMA anticipates years of relief work.

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by John Piper

The most ultimate and the most central and most foundational reality that exists is God. Before there was a universe, there was God. God is eternal with no beginning and no ending. He said to Moses, “Tell them I Am sent you. I Am who I Am.” He’s absolute. Everything else is derivative. Everything else is dependent including all human beings us. Therefore, God is the most important being and the most valuable being that exists. Everything else has meaning and everything else has worth because of its connection to and its derivation from God and his worth. Everything has meaning and worth because it mirrors more or less God’s worth and God’s truth. His truth, his goodness, his beauty define all that is really true, all that is really good, and all that is beautiful. That’s what it means to be God.

In His Image

That absolute all-creating, all-originating, all-sustaining God created everything else including human beings, and he created us human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:27), which means that he created us with the rational and the moral and the affectional capacities to image him. Images are made to image. The meaning of being created in the image of God is that we have a destiny or a design or a capacity to image God, to mirror God, to reflect God. That’s what I mean to be created in the image of God. We are to magnify our Maker, so his goodness and his beauty and his truth are defined. Expression and echo mirror in us.

For His Glory

The Bible says, “Bring my sons from afar, my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone whom I created for my glory.” Every human being is created to make much of God, to put his glory on display. That’s why every human being that is in New York is in New York — to display the glory of God for what he really is like according to his infinite value or 1 Corinthians 10:31 that was Isaiah 43:7. First Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do everything to the glory of God.”

Absolutely every person in every aspect of their lives from the biggest to the little is to live out the worth of God, the value of God, the beauty and goodness of God. Since God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, he designed us so that he himself and only he would be our supreme happiness because that’s the way you bring his glory to fullest expression.

If you’re bored with God, he’s not honored by you or glorified by you. If you are thrilled with God and deeply satisfied with God in the moment of your greatest suffering, then he has shown to be valuable in your life. God designed you for his glory, that is he designed you to be happy supremely in him above all other things. Knowing God, admiring God, treasuring God, trusting God, being near God, reflecting God, that’s what we were made for. All the people everywhere in every ethnic group on the planet have that as their God-appointed calling and reason for being. God is utterly supreme in our affections and we are utterly satisfied in his perfections. That’s the way he set it up.

The Greatest Issue in the World

The greatest issue in the world, therefore, is that not a single person in this room or on this planet fulfills that design, none. That’s the biggest problem in New York City, Minneapolis, Bangkok, and Beijing. It is the biggest problem in the world by far. We have all sinned. We’ve all exchanged that glory that we were made to enjoy and magnify. We’ve exchanged it for images — especially the one in the mirror — and we find our satisfaction not in knowing God or admiring God or treasuring God or trusting or reflecting God, but we find our pleasure in ourselves being exalted. We want to be made much of ourselves. It feels so good to be made much of and it does not feel good to human beings to make much of God. We are all fallen.

We are bent away from God. We are rebels. We are blind, treasuring the creature over the Creator thus belittling the creator and committing treason against our King. Every one of you has done that. Every person on the planet is guilty of treason. That’s the biggest problem in the world. When a whole planet commits treason against her King, that’s the biggest problem. Now in God’s unimpeachable justice, he opposes us therefore with great wrath. He is very angry at the human race, which means that we would be utterly and eternally lost, undone, desperate, going to hell.

Love Intervenes

We would be undone eternally if God weren’t more than unimpeachably just, if God didn’t somehow undertake for this rebellious planet with all of us rebels, selfish, self-exalting human beings to intervene somehow on a rescue operation that made it possible for those rebels to have amnesty and be reconciled back to making much of him and being supremely happy in it forever. That’s what he did. He entered history 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ — fully divine, fully and perfectly human Son of God, Jesus Christ. He said this when he came, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Isaiah said,

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his stripes, we are healed. We have all like sheep gone astray and turned every one to his own way, and the Lord God Almighty has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

That’s 700 years before it happened. Or Paul said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, cursed it is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). He did that intentionally to take that anger and that wrath and that curse on himself so that he can assemble a people who are forgiving when there’s no wrath against them anymore.

Or Paul in Romans 8:3: “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did, sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. He condemned sin in the flesh.” Whose sin? Jesus didn’t have any. Mine. Whose flesh? Not mine, Jesus’s. This is called substitution. Jesus sent by the Father to be a substitute so that all the punishment I deserved went on him, all the righteousness I couldn’t but should have performed, he completed, and the death I should have died, he walked into, and it spits him out and he triumphs. He climbs over it. That is what he did for his people: punished and canceled all their sin in Christ, performed and provided all their righteousness in Christ, absorbed and removed all the wrath of God against them, and purchased and secured their adoption into the family and their eternal happiness.

Free for You, and for Me

Christ did that by dying and rising again for them. That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God for this rebellious planet. It comes to consummation in individual lives when they ask: “You said he did that for his family?” That’s right I did. He did that for his elect. Yes. He did that for his redeemed people. Yes. “How do I get in? I mean can I get in?” And the answer is Yes. By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast, so by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Faith means when I hear that message, I say that is the best news I’ve ever heard for a rebel like me with the wrath of God on him, and you embrace it and receive it for the treasure that it is. That’s faith, and it’s free for the having for anybody in this room or anybody watching. Anybody who will receive it as their supreme treasure has it and all of that is valid for them.

The Gospel Explains and Undermines Racism

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Can you imagine wanting to be colorblind? And yet I hear that hope all the time.

When I speak with people about ethnic and racial diversity, it’s not long before I hear, “I don’t see color. I’m colorblind! My parents taught me not to see color.”

The phrase is trying to express that all people are people, and that color doesn’t matter. I’ve also heard colorblindness cited as a defense against racism: “I’m not racist. I love all people. In fact, I’m colorblind.”

But I disagree.

I’d like to suggest that we aren’t colorblind, we don’t need to be colorblind, and we actually should strive to not be colorblind. Colorblindness leads us in the wrong direction. Instead, I want to encourage us to be colorsmart. Here are four reasons why.

1. It’s Not Realistic

I’m an African-American woman. I cannot—and crucially, I have no desire to—erase the fact that God made me this way. There’s no hiding my milky-brown, freckled skin. I am who I am. When I walk into a room and I’m the only black woman, it’s obvious. I know it; you know it; we all know it. It’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise.

This doesn’t mean we need to act awkward around each other. If we’ve embraced the fact that God has created us as equals, there’s no reason for awkwardness. If you encounter someone ethnically different from you, it’s unrealistic, unhelpful, and possibly unloving to pretend you don’t notice. When your child says, “Mommy, why is that woman wearing a dot on her forehead?” don’t shush him quiet out of embarrassment. Take the question as an opportunity to positively explain her culture.

Instead of pretending we’re colorblind, let’s celebrate God’s creation and be colorsmart.

2. It Misses the Opportunity to Celebrate God’s Good Design

Colorblindness seeks to ignore or flatten the differences between us. Being colorsmart, however, enables us to see others as crafted in God’s image—just like us—while still acknowledging the beauty of our differences. We’re all equally created to reflect aspects of our Creator God. Nevertheless, he creates each of us uniquely. This should be proactively acknowledged and celebrated rather than fearfully ignored.

The reality is we’re not all the same in regard to skin color, interests, likes, gifts, and desires. God made us differently for a purpose: his manifold glory. Instead of striving to be colorblind, then, let’s recognize these differences in ways that express genuine love for neighbor and gratitude for the beauty of God’s flawless design.

Don’t we want to celebrate who God designed us to be? We should want our kids to rejoice that God created them the way they are and others the way they are. That’s the beautiful reality of creation.

3. The Gospel Is for All Nations

The most important reason to be colorsmart is that the gospel is for every nation. God celebrates his creation and redemption of all kinds of people.

The Bible tells us that we sinned, putting everything out of order, leading to the racial hatred we tragically see throughout history and still today. But Scripture also shows us how God is working for the redemption of all people through Christ. He’s glorified now when redeemed rebels from all nations worship him as one. We can see the fulfillment of his promise to redeem every tribe, tongue, and nation when we gather, fellowship, and worship with those who are different from us.

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by  / June 24, 2017

An American college student returned to the United States with severe brain damage after being held in a North Korean prison camp died last week. When Otto Warmbier, 22, arrived back home earlier this month he was reported to be in stable condition, though doctors said he had severe brain damage. Warmbier was accused of entering the country with the intent of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity” and charged with subversion and a “hostile act” for purportedly attempting to steal a propaganda banner from a hotel. After a one-hour trial Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Here are nine things you should know about North Korea, the most repressive nation on the planet:

1. North Korea was created after the country was divided in the aftermath of World War II. Following the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers, issued General Order No. 1. In this order, the Japanese empire was required to surrender all portions of Korea north of 38 north latitude to the Soviet Union and all of Korea south of that marker to the United States (the arbitrary choice of the dividing line, which has affected international relations for more than 70 years, was “recommended by two tired colonels working late at night”). That December, the Soviets installed a communist guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung as the chairman of the North Korean branch of the Korean Communist Party. When the DPRK was formed in September 1948, the Soviets recognized Kim Il-sung as the leader of Korea, both North and South. The autocratic Kim family—Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il, and grandson Kim Jong-un—have ruled the country every since.

2. Attempting to make his dream of unification a reality, Kim Il-sung launched the first military action of the Cold War by invading the Republic of Korea (ROK) in July 1950. The United Nations came to the aide of South Korea, with the United States providing more than two-thirds of the military forces. After four months of fighting, the DPRK was on the verge of losing when China came to their rescue. The fighting continued until 1953 when an armistice was signed that created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, separating North and South Korea. Because no peace treaty was ever signed, and because the United States has a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of Korea, the United States is positioned to go to war if the DPRK resumes attacks on South Korea.

3. Soon after taking control of his country, Kim Il-sung developed such a strong personality cult that under the DPRK constitution he remains, even in death, the “eternal President of the Republic.” Within a year of being appointed premier, Kim Il-sung was referring to himself as “The Great Leader” and erecting statues of himself (the country now has more than 500 statues of him). His birthday is a national holiday known as the “Day of the Sun,” and in 1997 Kim Il-sung even created a new calendar that recalculated time from the year 1912, when he “came to earth from heaven.”

4. In 1972, after he surrendered his Soviet premiership and became president of North Korea, Kim Il-sung instituted the ideology known as Juche, a form of hyper-nationalistic self-reliance. As the DPRK explains, “The Juche idea means, in a nutshell, that the masters of the revolution and construction are the masses of the people and that they are also the motive force of the revolution and construction. The Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Writing in the Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Grace Lee explains how this official autarkic state ideology is used to keep the North Korean population under control:

The Kim Il Sung regime instructed the North Korean people in the juche ideology using an analogy drawn from human anatomy. The Great Leader is the brain that makes decisions and issues orders, the Party is the nervous system that channels information, and the people are the bone and muscle that physically execute the orders. This belief system, inculcated in North Koreans since early childhood, made them docile and loyal to Kim Il Sung even in the face of famines and energy crises that have devastated the country.

5. Kim Il-sung placed his son in positions of power so that in 1994 Kim Jong-il would become the “supreme leader” of the DPRK. Over the next three years, Kim Jong-il’s agricultural system would cause a famine that killed 3 million of the country’s 22 million people. (Under the idea of JucheThe Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann says, “Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population.”) In 2012 North Koreans again suffered from another man-made famine that led to mass starvation. According to a credible report by Asia Press international, North Korean authorities even imposed severe punishment for suspected acts of cannibalism and selling human meat.

6.  As his people starved, Kim Jong-il focused on a policy of songun (military first), spending about one-third of the nation’s income to maintain the world’s fourth-largest army. The citizens of the country are extremely poor (annual GDP per capita in 2014 was $538, compared to $27,221 in South Korea and $55,836 in the United States), so to keep control of the population the Kim family has maintained a massive system of kwanliso (gulag-like political prison camps). As Human Rights Watch explains:

Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, which are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions. Working conditions at these sites are extremely difficult, including exposure to harsh weather, rudimFor the entary tools, lack of safety equipment, and high risks of workplace accidents. Death rates in these camps are extremely high, political prison camp survivors told Human Rights Watch.

7. Knowledge of the outside world is limited for most North Korean citizens. All legal televisions are tuned to state-controlled domestic programming, and outside of a closed domestic network, there is no internet access. The state maintains a network of informants who monitor and report to the authorities fellow citizens they suspect of criminal or subversive behavior, USA Today notes, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished.

8.  Freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea and is, in fact, profoundly suppressed…

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Here is my endorsement for an important new book:

controversy of the ages cabalIf I had the power to require every Christian parent, pastor, and professor to read two books on creation and evolution—ideally alongside their mature children, parishioners, and students—it would be 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution (by Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker) along with the book you are now holding in your hands, Controversy of the Ages: Why Christians Should Not Divide Over the Age of the Earth.

Neither book intends to answer all of the questions definitively, but together they are like maps for Christians in the complex and confusing intersection of the Bible and science.

We cannot bury our head in the sand, or outsource study of these issues to others. Ted Cabal and Peter Rasor help us sort through the issues and the options, modeling for us how to use proportion and perspective in our rhetoric and strategies of disagreement within the body of Christ.

We live in perplexing days, but clear and clarifying books like this are a tremendous gift to the church. If the arguments and tone of this book are taken to heart, we will all be sharper, wiser, and kinder. I pray it is widely read.

Kenneth Keathley, co-author of the other go-to book I mentioned above, had this to say about the Cabal/Rasor book:

When people ask for a good book to read about the age of the earth, I have a new favorite to recommend: Cabal and Rasor’s Controversy of the Ages. With remarkable clarity, this book provides historical and theological context to the young-earth/old-earth controversy. But Cabal and Rasor move beyond mere description and prescribe the way to move forward—the Galileo approach. This is an important book, and it needs to be read by pastors, college and seminary students, and all who care about science and faith issues.

Here are the rest of the endorsements for this book:

“The time is long past when we have needed a very careful, thoroughly documented analysis and response to the claims of young earth creationists. But with this book, I am delighted to say that that time has come. I am very enthusiastic about the scholarship, careful treatment and irenic tone of this book and highly recommend it.”

J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology

“In addition to a well-informed history of evangelical moves for relating Genesis to geology and then to Darwinism, the authors have given us much more. They have provided trenchant evaluation of the argumentative strategies―theological, scientific, and philosophical. They show that of the various groups known to us today―the young earth creationists, the (non-Darwinian) old earth creationists, and the evolutionary creationists―none can be exempted from critique, and none deserves the place of exclusive privilege. This book deserves a wide readership, for it is informative, fair, and incisive. I rejoice that God spared Dr. Cabal from a terminal cancer to help write this!

C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

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by Timothy George

Editors’ note: Come celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with us at our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. The theme is “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” Timothy George will be speaking on “Reformation Before the Reformers” and “Early Reformers: Why Didn’t They Unite?” in workshops. Space is filling up fast, so register soon. The following article originally appeared in First Things.

The preaching of the gospel as a sacramental event is at the heart of Reformation theology. Preaching is also at the heart of Reformation faith—preaching as an indispensable means of grace and a sure sign of the true church. Where is the church? According to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (1530), the church is that place where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments are duly administered. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) went even further when it declared that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

Of course, preaching—unlike the printing press—was not a new invention of the Reformation era. Far from it. Think of Augustine and Chrysostom in the early church, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Hus, and the many mendicant friars who fanned out across Europe in the Middle Ages.

St. Francis preached the gospel to a Muslim sultan, and Savonarola declared God’s judgment on the sinful leaders of Florence. Bernardino of Siena, the great Franciscan herald, preached to throngs in the 15th century, calling on his listeners to repent, confess their sins, and go to Mass. The Protestant reformers knew this tradition and built on it, but they also transformed it in two important respects.

Central Act of Worship

First, they made the sermon the centerpiece of the church’s regular worship. Prior to the Reformation, the sermon was mostly an ad hoc event reserved for special occasions or seasons of the liturgical cycle, especially Christmas and Eastertide. Most sermons were preached in town squares or open fields. The reformers brought the sermon back inside the church and gave it an honored place in the public worship of the gathered community. The central role of preaching in Protestant worship can be seen in the way pulpits were raised to a higher elevation as families gathered with their children to hear the Word proclaimed.

Second, the reformers introduced a new theology of preaching. They were concerned that the Bible take deep root in the lives of the people. The Word of God was meant not only to be read, studied, translated, memorized, and meditated on; it was also to be embodied in the life and worship of the church. What might be called the practicing of the Bible—its embodiment—was most clearly expressed in the ministry of preaching. Martin Luther believed that a call to the preaching office was a sacred trust and shouldn’t be used for selfish purposes. “Christ did not establish the ministry of proclamation to provide us with money, property, popularity, honor, or friendship,” he said.

Luther

Preachers should be wary of listeners who are too complimentary, for flattery can have a sinister outcome. Puffed-up preachers are likely to think, This you have done; this is your work; you are a first-rate man, the real master. Such conceit is not even worth throwing to the dogs, Luther said. Faithful preachers should teach only God’s Word and seek only his praise. “Likewise, the hearers should also say: ‘I do not believe in my pastor, but he tells me of another Lord whose name is Christ; him he shows me.’”

Zwingli

Preaching was no less important in the Reformed tradition. When one visits the Great Minster Church in Zurich today, the following inscription can be read over the portal: “The Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli began here on January 1, 1519.” That date, no less than October 31, 1517, can answer the question, “When did the Reformation begin?”

For on that first day of January, which happened to be Zwingli’s birthday, the new pastor began his pulpit ministry by announcing his intention to dispense with the prescribed texts of the traditional lectionary. He would follow a new paradigm: preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. After completing Matthew, Zwingli resumed the same lectio continua method by taking up Acts, then the letters to Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters. He then turned to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.

Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli as the Reformation leader in Zurich, reported “a rush of all sorts of people, in particular the common man, to these evangelical sermons of Zwingli’s, in which he praised God the Father, and taught all people to place their trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as the single Savior.” One of those common people who rushed to hear Zwingli in the 1520s was a young student named Thomas Platter. He tells of hearing a sermon by Zwingli that was “expounded so powerfully that I felt as if someone was pulling me up by my hair.”

Calvin

From the pulpit of St. Pierre in Geneva, John Calvin followed the preaching pattern established by Zwingli. His pulpit work was marked by sequential, text-driven preaching. In the course of his ministry at Geneva, Calvin delivered more than 4,000 sermons, and many have survived for us to study.

What was the secret of Calvin’s preaching? Hughes Oliphant Old gave this answer:

Calvin drew out of the Scriptures aspects of Christian teaching which the church had not heard for centuries. This was above all the case for the doctrine of grace. The promise of salvation was presented to all who would believe it. Calvin preached justification by faith, as all the reformers did. More than some, perhaps, he also preached sanctification by faith. The lives of those who believed the Word of God would be transformed by that Word. Holiness was the fruit of faith. To believe the Word was to live by the Word, and that life lived according to the Word of God was blessed, both in this world and in the world to come.

Three Marks of Reformation Preaching

In an important essay published in Theology Today in 1961, Heiko A. Oberman set forth the distinctive marks of Reformation preaching in terms of three interrelated aspects.

1. The sermon is an apocalyptic event.

Not quite in the sense of Savonarola’s preaching of impending doom to the people of Florence, but in the sense that the sermon unveils and makes present the last judgment here and now. Without demythologizing Christ’s future coming, gospel preaching existentializes the final will of God for every hearer by calling for a decisive response here and now. “In the sermon,” Oberman observed, “Christ and the Devil are revealed, Creator and creature, love and wrath, essence and existence, ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’”

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Frederick-Douglass

Since Frederick Douglass is in the news these days—with President Trump calling him “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice”—I thought I’d share a haunting paragraph from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written in 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War began.

It is a beautiful expression of the horrific hypocrisy of some antebellum churches:

I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land. . . . I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. . . .

I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.

We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.

The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . .

The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.

Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.

For the rest of the post…

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 Last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened a committee of experts to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature regarding the health effects of marijuana use. The committee considered more than 10,700 studies for their relevance and arrived at nearly 100 different research conclusions related to marijuana (cannabis) or cannabinoid use and health. Their findings were recenty published in a 400-page report.

Here are nine things about the effects of marijuana you should know based on this report:

1. The terms marijuana and cannabis refer to all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., including the seeds, the resin extracted from any part of such plan, and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds, or resin. The compounds that cause intoxication and may have medicinal uses are cannabinoids, a class of chemical compounds that acts on cannabinoid receptors in cells that represses neurotransmitter release in the brain. The marijuana plant contains more than 100 cannabinoids. Currently, the two main cannabinoids from the marijuana plant that are of medical interest are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

2. There is substantial or conclusive scientific evidence for only three medical benefits of cannabis or cannabinoids: treating chronic pain in adults; treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and nausea after chemotherapy; and improving symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

3. There is substantial evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and increased risk of motor vehicle crashes.  Self-reported cannabis use or the presence of THC in blood, saliva, or urine, has been associated with 20 to 30 percent higher odds of a motor vehicle crash.

4. In states where cannabis use is legal, there is increased risk of unintentional cannabis overdose injuries among children. There is insufficient evidence to support or refute a statistical association between cannabis use by adults and death due to cannabis overdose.

5. Recent cannabis use (within the past 24 hours) impairs the performance in cognitive domains of learning, memory, and attention. A limited number of studies also suggest there are impairments in cognitive domains of learning, memory, and attention in individuals who have stopped smoking cannabis. Cannabis use during adolescence is related to impairments in subsequent academic achievement and education, employment and income, and social relationships and social roles

6. Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses—the higher the use the greater the risk. However, cannabis use does not appear to increase the likelihood of developing anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder.

7. The evidence suggests that any cannabis use is related with increased suicidal ideation (i.e., suicidal thoughts or preoccupation with suicide), augmented suicide attempts, and greater risk of death by suicide. Studies reveal that heavy cannabis use (used 40 or more times) is associated with a higher risk of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts.

8. There is substantial evidence that initiating cannabis use at an earlier age is a risk factor for the development of problem cannabis use. There is moderate evidence that during adolescence the frequency of cannabis use, oppositional behaviors, a younger age of first alcohol use, nicotine use, parental substance use, poor school performance, antisocial behaviors, and childhood sexual abuse are risk factors for the development of problem cannabis use. Anxiety, personality disorders, and bipolar disorders are not risk factors for the development of problem cannabis use.

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by   / December 16, 2016

The recent struggle for control of the Syrian city of Aleppo has brought renewed attention to the ongoing war crimes that have devastated this Middle East nation. Here are nine things you should know about Aleppo and the Syrian crisis:

1. In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest, and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion that has spread across the country. Although the conflict was originally between factions for and against President Assad, the civil war has broadened into a battle between the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect. The conflict has drawn in neighboring countries and world powers and led to the rise of jihadist groups, including Islamic State (ISIS).

2. Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and contains the country’s largest population of Christians. Aleppo is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world behind only Damascus (also in Syria) and Byblos (Lebanon). Prior to the Syrian civil war, Aleppo contained about 10 percent of Syria’s population (roughly 2.3 million people).

3. The battle for Aleppo began in mid-July 2012, when anti-government rebels gained control of several districts within the city. Since then the city has been divided between the government-held west and rebel-held east. Beginning at the end of 2013, the Syrian government began aerial bombing of the eastern sections of the city, a tactic that has caused a humanitarian crisis that has disproportionately affected the city’s children.

4. Syria has a young population (median age is 24.1). While about half of the nearly 5 million refugees who have fled Syria are children, Unicef estimates that about eight million children remain in the country. Save the Children also estimates about 40 percent of the besieged population in eastern Aleppo are children. As Save the Children spokeswoman Carol Anning told the BBC, in war you should expect to see a much higher population of adult males being killed in frontline action. “But what we have seen in Aleppo in the last couple of days is totally indiscriminate bombing from the air,” Anning says. “So children are impacted just as much or more than adults in those situations.”

5. A 2015 report by the UN’s Human Rights Council notes “the conduct of an ever-increasing number of actors is characterized by a complete lack of adherence to the norms of international law.” A prime example is the use of sexual violence against girls and women. The report says, “Women and girls were found to have been raped and sexually assaulted in government detention facilities, in particular in the investigation branches of the Military Intelligence Directorate and prisons administered by the General Security Directorate in Damascus. State officials have perpetrated rape, a crime against humanity.” Rebel groups have also committed similar atrocities, with girls and women kept as slaves and “subject to horrific and repeated sexual violence. Girls and women in ISIS-controlled areas live in fear of forced marriage to the fighters.”

6. Since 2012, the Syrian government has used aerial “barrel bombs” (aka “flying IEDs”)—often dropping them on civilian populations. According to the Weapons Law Encyclopedia, a barrel bomb refers to an improvised container (e.g. an oil drum or gas cylinder) dropped from an aircraft and filled with explosive, incendiary, or other substances and often includes additional materials to increase fragment projection. The UN claims the Assad regime has dropped barrel bombs containing chemical agents, likely chlorine, on “crowded areas, such as bakery lines, transportation hubs, apartment buildings, and markets.” The use of such weapons against civilian populations or containing chemical weapons clearly violates international laws.

7. Throughout the conflict, anti-government forces have relied on a variety of terrorist tactics against civilians. The groups have kidnapped women and children—sometimes holding them hostage for years—to use them for ransom or prisoner exchanges. They have also used suicide and car bombs attacks against civilian and government targets. Rebel groups associated with ISIS have executed civilians who refuse to recognize their self-proclaimed rule, publicly amputated limbs as punishment for theft, and whipped residents for smoking and trading during prayer times.

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