Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Seeing through these Black eyes

February, as everyone in the U.S. should know, is African-American or Black History Month. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), who is known as the father of Black History, believed that in order to participate effectively in American society, Blacks needed to know about their history, a history that, tragically, had been erased, obscured and ignored as a result of the evil of slavery and the racial prejudice and discrimination against African people and their descendants which gave birth to slavery and continued in slavery’s aftermath. Woodson believed it was necessary for all Americans to know the important and significant contributions that Blacks have made to America. I agree with Woodson. The need still exists.

For those who would like to know more about Carter G. Woodson, I have links here, here and here.

In the interest of Black History month, I’d like to do something different. I’d like to spend the majority of February writing especially from my “Black self”. That is, I would like to expose my readers to some of my thoughts as a Black, Christian man in America. My wife and sons are already familiar with my views, so nothing I’ll write will be news to them. I’ve talked about these things many times at our dinner table, while riding in the car, relaxing in front of the television or doing yard work. Nothing I will write is “news” to those who know me best. But to others, especially those who are not Black, much of my “Black self” remains hidden. In my opinion, wearing this kind of racial “mask” is necessary to smoothly navigate life in America. It’s a survival technique (In that vein, I would recommend you read the classic and eye-opening 1952 novel, Invisible Man, by the late writer and novelist, Ralph Ellison). However, masks do not promote understanding. This is why, in the interest of racial understanding, I would like to remove the mask and let non-Blacks see America and the evangelical church through these Black eyes.

I don’t think my racial views are all that unique among Black people—not at all. In fact, I think my views are pretty much middle-of-the-road. On one extreme, I’ve known Blacks who definitely harbor hostility and racism against whites. On the other hand, I suspect I’ve met a few Blacks who seem to have forgotten that they are Black (and, I don’t mean that as a compliment, by the way). I’m thinking of Black people who act as if they wish they were white, who look down their noses at people of their own race. In contrast to these extremes, I do not hate anyone of another race, neither do I reject my own race and racial heritage. Now, there have been times, because of hurtful racial experiences, when I have struggled with hatred against whites, and there have been other times when I’ve felt like turning my back in disgust on Black folks. However, as far as I know my own heart, at this stage of life I do not hate or feel hostility against anyone, and I love and respect (and like!) people of various races and ethnicities. And, I mean specific people, not just a nameless, faceless, nondescript group of people. Anybody can love people “in general”. I must give all glory to God because, more than once, I’ve had to pray for genuine love for people (white and Black) who’ve hurt me, and God has answered that prayer.

Most of what I have to write will be about Blacks and whites. I don’t mean to ignore other races or ethnicities, but the fact is, being Black in America has always been mainly about trying to live, work and relate with whites. So, please don’t take offense if I’m not talking about you; there will be something here, I think, for all to learn. However, there’s a history between Blacks and whites in America that goes back a l-o-n-g way. It is out of my personal experience, within this continuing saga of Black-white relations, that I will be writing.

So, I pray that you will bear with me. I pray that you will read and listen to what I’m trying to say, especially if you’re not African-American. I’m not trying to bash anybody or any group, but I’m concerned that the Church in America still doesn’t “get it”, when it comes to race. In particular, I think conservative, evangelical, Christian whites need to know what it’s like to be Black. You need to understand that not every Bible-believing, evangelical-minded Christian sees the world as you do. I’m going to try to share my heart. I pray that God will, in some way, use what I write for good and for His glory.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The preaching that we need to hear today

Anthony Carter came across a sermon that you need to hear (And, share with someone else!).

Links for both pulpit and pew

These links ought to motivate us to pray, both pulpit and pew:
Thabiti Anyabwile asks the question, Can the Predominantly African-American Church Be Reformed? God knows my heart aches for the Black Church. Read what our brother Thabiti has to say, and ponder this question for yourself.

For all you preachers: Zack Eswine had an article on the Reformation 21 website, titled, Seeking the Spirit: What Today’s Preacher Can Learn from Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Also on the Reformation 21 website, and also for preachers, is an article by William Farley titled, Preaching to Obtain Humility.
And, you must read this: Why Blacks Are Leaving Evangelical Ministries: The Failure of Racial Reconciliation by Anthony Bradley. Read it, please, and consider.

Monday, January 29, 2007

More links...and a quote

A few more links to some blog posts worth reading:
Mark Loughridge, at his blog, “3:17”, has some food for thought that is very much worth chewing on.
World Magazine has an interview with Juan Williams, titled “Descent into Destruction”, on what is holding up Black progress in America.
Thabiti Anyabwile at “Pure Church” writes a great post about “Jesus and Affirmative Action”.
Rick Phillips, at the “Reformation 21” blog, gives us Christian men something to think about.
And then, moving on from the blogs to a good book...
I’m still slowly working my way through Overcoming Sin & Temptation, Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor’s edition of three classic works by the Puritan John Owen. So, in conclusion, I want to leave you with this quote from Owen’s treatise, The Power and Efficacy of Indwelling Sin (pp. 246-247 in Overcoming Sin & Temptation) , which I read today while doing hall duty at the high school at which I work (a great way, incidentally, to make time spent in a boring task not only tolerable, but profitable):
Speaking of Indwelling Sin, Owen says,
“It always abides in the soul—it is never absent. The apostle twice uses that expression, ‘It dwells in me.’ [Romans 7:17, 20; in context] There is its constant residence and habitation. If it came upon the soul only at certain seasons, much obedience might be perfectly accomplished in its absence; yea, and as they deal with usurping tyrants, whom they intend to thrust out of a city, the gates might be sometimes shut against it, that it might not return—the soul might fortify itself against it. But the soul is its home; there it dwells, and is no wanderer. Wherever you are, whatever you are about, this law of sin is always in you; in the best that you do, and in the worst. Men little consider what a dangerous companion is always at home with them. When they are in company, when alone, by night or by day, all is one, sin is with them. There is a living coal continually in their houses; which, if it be not looked unto, will fire them, and it may be consume them. Oh, the woeful security of poor souls! How little do the most of men think of this inbred enemy that is never from home! How little, for the most part, does the watchfulness of any professors answer the danger of their state and condition!”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

“Showers of blessing”

I’m intrigued by the Scripture’s depiction of God’s Spirit as water or rain being “poured out” upon God’s people. Just look at these texts:

Proverbs 1:23
“If you turn at my reproof, behold, I [wisdom] will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you.”

Ezekiel 39:29
“And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”

Joel 2:28-29
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”

Acts 2:33
“Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”

Acts 10:44-45
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.”
Surely this expression, “pour out my Spirit”, is meant to convey the idea that the reception of the Holy Spirit into the human soul is a refreshing, cleansing, life-giving effusion. Like a mighty downpour of rain in a drought-plagued land, like a drink of cool water on a hot summer day, so is the Spirit of God to a dry and thirsty soul.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh
faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)

Are you thirsty for God Himself?

I’ve also been going down “memory lane”, thinking about some of the hymns from my past church life. I hardly ever hear these hymns anymore (unless I’m playing them on the piano for myself and singing them at home). Many of these old gospel hymns are hopelessly dated, I know; yet, they address important aspects of spiritual life not often addressed in the Christian songs of today, such as spiritual revival or renewal. The following two 19th century gospel hymns use the biblical metaphor of “showers of blessing” (Ezekiel 34:26 KJV; context Ezekiel 34:25-31), to describe this “pouring out” of God’s Spirit that I’m talking about:

“There Shall Be Showers of Blessing” by Maj. Daniel W. Whittle (1840-1901)
“There shall be showers of blessing”:
This is the promise of love;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
Sent from the Savior above.

“There shall be showers of blessing”,
Precious reviving again;
Over the hills and the valleys,
Sound of abundance of rain.

“There shall be showers of blessing”:
Send them upon us, O Lord;
Grant to us now a refreshing,
Come, and now honor Thy Word.

“There shall be showers of blessing”:
Oh, that today they might fall,
Now as to God we’re confessing,
Now as on Jesus we call!

Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

“Lord, I Hear of Showers of Blessing” by Elizabeth Conder (1824-1919)
Lord, I hear of showers of blessing,
Thou art scattering full and free;
Showers the thirsty land refreshing;
Let some drops now fall on me.

Pass me not, O God, our Father!
Sinful though my heart may be;
Thou mightst curse me, but the rather,
Let Thy mercy light on me.

Pass me not, O gracious Saviour,
Let me live and cling to Thee;
For I’m longing for Thy favor;
Whilst Thou art calling, O call me.

Pass me not, O mighty Spirit,
Thou canst make the blind to see;
Witnesser of Jesus’ merit,
Speak some word of power to me.

Love of God, so pure and changeless,
Blood of Christ, so rich, so free;
Grace of God, so strong and boundless;
Magnify it all in me.

(And, I like how the late Roberta Martin re-worked the refrain)
Even me, Lord, even me.
Even me, Lord, even me.
Let some drops now fall on me.

These hymns convey my personal desire and prayer:

Lord, pour out your Spirit upon “even me”;
Send down “showers of blessing” upon my dry and thirsty soul;
Pour out your Spirit in power upon my soul (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8);
Cause the life-giving rivers to flow (John 7:37-39)!

Is it right to pray this way? Yes, it is! Most certainly it is! Jesus gave His people the right to pray this way (Luke 11:13). I refuse to satisfy myself with a dry, cold, merely intellectual faith—theologically correct, but dry as dust, powerless, dead and deadly! No, no, no! I want to know by experience the life-giving “showers”!

I hope you’re not afraid of the word “experience”. God means for us to experience these things—not just theologize and philosophize about them, but to experience their reality in our lives.

“Even me, Lord!”

Friday, January 26, 2007

Friday links

Here are a few links to items which I am pleased to recommend to you for your weekend reading: At Between Two Worlds, Justin Taylor links to “Mohler on the Importance of Reading” and “Making Much of Christ from 8 to 5”. Then, Anthony Bradley writes, “This Year Don't Forget To Warn About Hell”.
Finally, in light of the last several posts I’ve written, I am glad to point you to Desiring God, where you can access several balanced and biblical sermons on spiritual gifts which, like everything else I’ve ever read or heard from Dr. John Piper, reflect not only biblical depth but a passion for God fired by a refreshing openness to the Holy Spirit.
May you be blessed!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

And, in this corner...

I’ve been engaged in quite a discussion over at “Voice of the Sheep”. I don’t really like to get wrapped up in these kinds of debates. I know somebody out there that knows me really well (like my wife) is probably shocked, because, “in the flesh”, I do like to argue a wee bit. But, honestly, I’ve been trying the past few years to “kick the habit” and not “bite the bait” so easily. I figure if God won’t change your mind, why should I waste my time trying? But, perhaps this discussion can be instructive for some of you. So, pull up a chair and make yourself confortable. You can even choose sides. You can read the discussion here, here and here.

"O for closer walk with God"

All this blogging about the personal spiritual experiences of my early Christian life remind me of some of the joys of those days. There is always the danger, I think, of becoming complacent with the Christian life. Back then, everything was so new, so fresh, so exciting. I know some of my excitement back then was immaturity, but, nevertheless, there is something to be said for youthful zeal and the excitement of a young Christian for God and His word. You know what I mean?

I think it was A.W. Tozer who said something about the excitement and zeal of a young Christian before some self-appointed theological watchdog gets to him to talk him out of his zeal. O, my Reformed brothers and sisters! Don’t make it your business to put out someone else’s fire! Fan the Spirit’s flames; don’t put them out!

Maybe some of us need to catch fire. There’s something wrong if all our reading and learning only puts out the fire of God’s Spirit in our souls. The best thing is to have both knowledge and fire. But if I have to choose between the two, I’d rather be deficient in knowledge with a soul on fire, than full of correct theology with a heart as cold and hard as ice.

Anyway, along these same lines, I thought of a hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800) that we used to sing in church back in the day. I don’t hear it anymore, but it still speaks to me:
O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul’s refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their mem’ry still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.

Return, O Holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
“A closer walk with God”—is that your desire? Remember, knowledge of infallible, inerrant, authoritative and sufficient Scripture is only a means to an end—
“A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.”
The goal is to know God.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Measuring God by our limited experience of Him

When it comes to discussions about how God works today in the Church by His Spirit there is a tendency, it seems, for some believers to limit God’s activity within the boundaries of their own experiences. In other words, if they have never experienced it or seen it then, as far as they’re concerned, it’s not real or legitimate. I don’t think this is a wise approach. In fact, I think it could be a cover for our unbelief.

What motivated me to write was a post over at Brian Thornton’s “Voice of the Sheep”. Thornton asks, “Outside of the Bible, exactly how does God speak?”
“I had posted a very short piece several days ago on the subjective vs. objective, and questioning which one we should put our trust in. The subjective side includes things such as feelings, impressions, leadings, inner peace, circumstances, and directions from others. People often try to describe receiving information through these various mediums as God speaking. They will use a phrase such as ‘God spoke to me’, but when questioned on exactly how God communicates this information, I have never seen a response that can definitively answer the manner in which God 'speaks' in these various mediums.

“To be sure, I have never seen anyone who holds to a belief that God speaks through these types of channels provide any biblical precedence for it whatsoever. The examples from Scripture usually cited do in fact display God speaking, but always in an audible voice. And I have yet to find anyone willing to admit they are hearing God speak to them in that manner (unless of course your name is Jesse Duplantis, Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson, etc.).”
It is this last sentence that disturbs me. The unstated assumption is that God does not speak apart from the Bible; although He spoke to people audibly in Bible days, He no longer does that today. The very mention of off-beat characters like Duplantis, Hinn and Robertson subtly (or not so subtly) suggests that only charlatans or the mentally unbalanced actually hear God speak. Now, to be perfectly honest, I’ve never heard God speak audibly (I believe I have heard God, however, just not audibly. You can read my post on this subject.). I don’t think I know of anyone who has actually heard God speak audibly (at least I don’t remember anyone telling me they had), but what does finding “anyone willing to admit they are hearing God speak to them” audibly have to do with whether or not God actually speaks audibly today? Do you see what I mean? According to the Bible, God has spoken audibly in the past (again, you can read my post on this). The Bible never states that God has stopped speaking audibly (and if you know where it says that in the Bible, please let me know—I’m serious). Therefore, I think we can safely assume that God could speak audibly today, if He wanted to. Whether or not I know of anyone who admits to hearing God speak audibly is beside the point. The Bible says God can speak audibly, so that should settle it.

Why do we even have these discussions? I think it is because we have the attitude, “If I haven’t experienced it, or seen it, then it can’t possibly be true.” In effect, we limit God to our experiences. If it’s foreign to our experience, then we discount it. I don’t think that’s the safest or wisest thing to do.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Dear reader, you might as well stop trying to “figure out” God. You can’t. God can do what He wants, when He wants, and how He wants, and, unless there is a statement in His word to the contrary, I choose to believe that He can still do what He did. It has nothing to do with whether or not I’ve experienced it or seen it. God is absolutely free.

In my opinion, this attitude of trying to limit the ways in which God works is no different from liberal churches’ approach to Scripture. If it doesn’t fit into their modern, politically-correct worldview, then liberal churches dismiss it. Conservatives do the same thing, but we explain away our unbelief with theological labels such as “dispensationalism” or “cessationism”. In my opinion, it’s still unbelief. If we can relegate whole sections of Scripture to another “dispensation” or to the ages of the Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles, then we can ignore them; they don’t apply to us. Liberals just relegate whole sections of Scripture to the category of “the outdated” or “mythology”, but the result is still the same: We get rid of Scripture we don’t like or find inconvenient. We remove ourselves from having to deal with extraordinary manifestations of God’s Spirit.

What I plead for is openness and submission to the sovereignty of the Spirit of God. Some of you know you can’t control God (although you try!), so you try to control people instead, telling them what parts of the Bible to believe and what parts they can’t believe, what they can experience and what they can’t experience, what they should feel and what they shouldn’t feel. Don’t be a spiritual “control freak”! Don’t try to measure God by your limited experience of Him. Instead, let God “stretch” you: Ask God to allow you to experience more of Him!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Abortion and Racism

I have long felt that the practice of abortion within the minority community smacks of racism ("'Those people' are having too many babies! Somebody ought to teach them about birth control and abortion.").
Dr. John Piper picks up on this feeling in a sermon, "When Is Abortion Racism?"
Read and/or listen to it, and feel God's heart of compassion for the inner-city minority communities in America. I thank God for using Dr. Piper to help bring the racial aspect of abortion to the attention of the evangelical church.

Does God still speak? (Part 3)

This post is rather long, but I don't want to stretch this out to four parts. So, bear with me, please. In light of what I've already written on this subject, the question arises: If the Scriptures are the inspired word of God, and if there is no new revelation being added to the Scriptures, then why would God need to speak directly to anyone?

In my opinion, based on what I have learned of God from Scripture, God doesn’t “need” to speak directly to anyone. The only thing God owes us is condemnation and punishment under His fiery wrath in hell. God doesn’t “need” to communicate with us. God didn’t “need” to give us the Scriptures. God could have justly left sinful humanity with no revelation, no direction, no Savior and no hope. Because of human fallenness and sinfulness, we don’t deserve anything good from God; therefore, asking why God would need to speak directly to people is the wrong question to ask. The Scriptures are clear: God has spoken in the past, which means the logical question to ask is, “Why did God ever condescend to speak to sinful humanity in the first place?” Why would He be so kind to miserable sinners like us? That’s the question to ask!

As I said in the earlier post, I do not find Scriptural grounds for declaring that God no longer speaks directly since the canon of Scripture is closed. I am not aware of any passage of Scripture that makes such a claim. On the other hand, neither do I find grounds for the practice of running here and there (usually to some self-styled “Apostle” or “Prophet”) to seek a “word from the Lord”.

God is sovereign—He can do what He wants. Therefore, God can speak directly to human beings if He so chooses. There’s nothing stopping God from doing that. Nevertheless, if we want a “word from the Lord”, we can receive one at any time, day or night, when we open our Bibles and read what “thus saith the Lord”. I believe there are too many people desperate to “hear” from God who won’t even open up their Bibles or, if they do occasionally open their Bibles, won’t even obey the word the Lord has already given. This is inexcusable.

However, this sad reality doesn’t negate the fact that, if God so chooses, He can speak directly to us. He doesn’t have to but, because of His infinite compassion towards those who fear Him, He may speak to us directly.
“As a father show compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14)
I think it was only out of compassion for His people—knowing our “frame”, knowing our human frailty—that God gave any kind of revelation in the past, and it is out of this same compassion that He sometimes, when and to whom He chooses, speaks directly to His people. I hope you can see that I am not saying that this is absolutely necessary or is a normal, daily occurrence. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that God’s direct communication to individuals is rare. This is not God’s usual way. Even in the Scriptures, considering the number of individuals that we are told God spoke to, considering the amount of time covered between the Old and New Testaments, this was never a usual occurrence. Yet, in His mercy and compassion toward sinful humanity, God has condescended to speak to individuals, as He wills.

So, how does God speak to individuals? Judging from the examples we have in Scripture, one way God can speak directly to individuals through is through dreams:
“Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’” (Genesis 31:11)
But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” (Genesis 31:24)

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” (1 Kings 3:5)

But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)

Now when [the wise men] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13)
And, then, God can speak through visions:
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1)

And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here am I.” (Genesis 46:2)

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” (Acts 9:10)

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:9-10)

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” (Acts 18:9-10)
Scripture also indicates that God is able to communicate with people in understandable words. In a previous post, I listed several Scriptural examples of God’s speaking. Here, I’d like to focus on one example in particular—the call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-11):
Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.

Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

And the LORD called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the young man. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” Then the LORD said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel…”
Have you ever wondered what God sounded like? We know that Saul, and those traveling with him, heard the audible voice of the Lord Jesus when he was confronted by the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:7; 22:9). At Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God was heard (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). When Jesus was transfigured before His disciples, Peter, James and John, they, too heard the audible voice of God (Matthew 17:5-6; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; 2 Peter 1:17-18). And, then, on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the voice of God was audibly heard by the crowd that had gathered (John 12:28-30).

Did young Samuel also hear a voice? It is possible, but the text does not say. However, I wonder if perhaps Samuel did hear a voice, but not audibly. Is there anything hindering the Spirit of God from impressing distinct words on the human mind, words unheard by physical ears but, nonetheless, clearly discernable to the hearer? This is pure speculation, I know, but I do wonder. I confess that I have personal reasons for wondering along these lines. Almost 18 years ago, I honestly believe I heard God’s voice—not audibly, mind you, but clearly discernable, nonetheless. That wasn’t the first time I had that experience. A few years earlier, right after making a specific request of God in prayer, I immediately received a clear answer in words that I could literally write down. Again, I did not hear anything audible; nevertheless, I “heard” distinct words. So, I wonder, is this also what young Samuel experienced?

I’ve not had that experience since those days, but I’d be lying to deny that this really happened to me. I hear what my rational, non-emotive, controlled, subdued, logical brothers and sisters in Christ say, but I also read what the Bible says. Scripture speaks of what God has done in the past—it says He spoke—and I’ve found nowhere any indication that God ceased talking when the apostle John laid down his pen. If you find it, please let me know. In the meantime, “I cannot but speak of what [I] have…heard” (Acts 4:20).

Thankfully, however, I don’t have to wait for extraordinary experiences to come along. I can receive a word from the Lord anytime I open up my Bible and read. This is the primary way in which God has always spoken, and Scripture remains the objective rule against which we should measure all things.
Just know, however, that God can speak, and if God so chooses—out of His great compassion for those who fear Him—He could speak. Be open to His voice.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Does God still speak? (Part 2)

In addressing the question of whether or not God still speaks, I not only feel the need to counter the cessationist position, on the one hand, but I also feel the need to guard against the (for lack of a better term) “hyper-charismatic” position, on the other. I know that as soon as I affirm that God continues to speak or bestow certain gifts of the Spirit, there are those who take that as my validation of every kind of weird or outlandish experience or activity that is attributed to the Holy Spirit today. That is certainly not my intention. For instance, I would definitely not affirm or recommend the majority of what I’ve seen on television that claims to be Christian, including nearly everything I’ve ever seen on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). So, let me make clear that I am not endorsing a theology or practice of “anything goes”.

I am also not affirming the claims of some, both inside and outside of Christendom, to hear words and directives from God that clearly contradict what God has already said, as recorded in Scripture. God is thoroughly consistent with Himself. He doesn’t say one thing and turn around later and say something in total contradiction to what He already said. God also does not give new revelation today. I think this truth is confirmed in Scripture with serious warnings in several places:
“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from if, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32)

“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6)

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
So, relax, I’m not talking about receiving “fresh” words from the Lord (as I’ve heard some media preachers put it). The only “fresh” word is the word God has already given us in the Bible. We can receive a word from the Lord any time we open our Bibles and read. Everything we need to know from God He has put in a book—the Bible—available for all to read and profit from who will avail themselves of the opportunity (and for those church folk who rarely read a Bible, it could, indeed, be a “fresh” word).

My contention is simply that Scripture never teaches that, with the close of the New Testament canon, God ceased to speak. If the verse exists that teaches that view, please let me know, because I have not been able to find it. Most often, those who say that God ceased to speak when the New Testament was completed—that is, cessationists—reference 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. We’re told that “the perfect” of verse 10 is the completed canon of Scripture. Well, if that’s so, then, according to verse 12, we also now “know fully” and see “face to face”. But, clearly, that’s not true. I think most believers would affirm they neither “know fully” nor “see clearly”. (I think it is interesting, to say the least, that some “hyper-charismatics” all but imply that they do, indeed, “know fully” and “see clearly” because of the spirituals gifts of prophecy, “the utterance of wisdom”, “the utterance of knowledge” and “the ability to distinguish between spirits”, as they define these gifts. But, lest the “other side” feels smug, some of my Reformed brothers and sisters, because of their adherence to “correct” theology, speak and blog as if they also “know fully” and “see clearly”. Perhaps both “sides” need to “get a grip”. None of us, on this side of eternity, know all we should know or see all we should see. All of us have huge “blind spots” and stand, before the infinite wisdom and knowledge of God, ignorant.) We presently live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet”. We’re still growing in grace, waiting for “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Additionally, “the perfect” has not yet come. One day, “the perfect” will come: Jesus Christ our Lord, in all His glory. “When he appears we shall be like him [i.e., “perfect”], because we shall see him as he is [“face to face”, no longer “in a mirror dimly”]” (1 John 3:2). So, since “the perfect” has not yet come, then it must be true that “prophecies”, “tongues”, and “knowledge” continues…and God still speaks.

What I’ve expressed above seems to me to be the clearest and most obvious understanding of 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. Now, if that passage doesn’t mean this, then I think the Church needs to get rid of the doctrine of the Perspicuity of the Scriptures and go back to the Roman Catholic system of letting the clergy do all the reading and interpreting of Scripture for the laity because, obviously, the ordinary believer cannot possibly understand the Scriptures without the help of the cessationistic “experts”. In my opinion, it takes quite a feat of theological legerdemain to pull some other meaning out of this passage than this obvious one: Jesus Christ is “the perfect” who is to come. In fact, this is what I think cessationists are guilty of doing. They are wrestling a meaning out of Scripture that simply is not there.

Now, if God has not made a declaration in Scripture that He is no longer speaking to individuals except through the written word, then it follows, does it not, that God is still speaking directly to individuals.

(To be continued…)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Does God still speak?

Have you ever noticed, when reading the Bible, that God speaks to people? From Genesis 1:3 (“Let there be light”) to Revelation 22:20 (“Surely I am coming soon”), again and again we see God speaking to people.

The following verses are by no means exhaustive, but merely just a small sampling to illustrate that God did indeed speak to people:

“But the LORD God called to the man [Adam] and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:9)

“When the LORD saw that [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’” (Exodus 3:4)

“After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, ‘Moses my servant is dead, Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel..’” (Joshua 1:1-2)

“And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant hears.’” (1 Samuel 3:10)

“And when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, ‘Go and say to David, “Thus says the LORD, Three things I offer you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.”’” (2 Samuel 24:11-12)

“At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, ‘Ask what I shall give you.’” (1 Kings 3:5)

“In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.”’” (2 Kings 20:1)

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’” (Job 38:1-2)

“[Jesus] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” (Matthew 17:5)

“And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” (Acts 9:4, 7)

“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight…’” (Acts 9:10-11a)

“And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’” (Acts 18:9-10)

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you…” (Revelation 22:12-13, 16)

Cessationists would have us believe that, since the canon of Scripture is now complete, God only speaks through Scripture. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, God no longer speaks, except through Scripture. First of all, let me make myself perfectly clear, I do believe the canon of Scripture is closed. There is no new revelation from God. The Scriptures—the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments—are fully sufficient, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Along with my cessationist brothers and sisters in Christ, I affirm that truth. Scripture is the Word of God.

But, does it of necessity follow that God can only speak through Scripture? Cannot God speak directly to men and women, as He did in Bible days?

(To be continued…)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

You mean, God doesn’t do that anymore?

Inspired (or provoked) by a series of cessationist posts at Pulpit Magazine by Nathan Busenitz (check out this post and the links on this page), I want to put down in words some of my thoughts about this ongoing controversy over cessationism versus continuationism.

I want to make clear that I’m not even trying to take on anybody in some kind of battle of biblical texts. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m no seminary graduate (in fact, I’m a seminary dropout), and I know I’m no intellectual match for all the illustrious theologians out there who hold differing views. I don’t know biblical Greek or Hebrew (and I do the best I can with English), and have no expertise to which anyone would be obliged to give deference. I figure my time can be better spent doing something else, rather than try to convince a cessationist that he or she is wrong. In fact, they can hold their theological position “until the cows come home”, or until Christ returns (whichever happens first). I don’t care. I just want to express some of my thoughts. Is that all right?

First of all, why do some cessationistic Christians feel the need to spend so much time and energy just to prove that “God doesn’t do that anymore”? I don’t understand that. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t see why this is so important. I mean, if you don’t believe God bestows any supernatural spiritual gifts, fine! Go on about your own business! But, why spend so much energy trying to change other people’s minds?

I suspect the real reason some cessationists spend so much time arguing their case is not so much to convince continuationists that the cessationist viewpoint is correct as it is to keep people from switching over from the cessationist camp to the continuationist camp. Most cessationists cannot dismiss the theological and biblical qualifications of men like Dr. Wayne Grudem and Dr. John Piper, and these men are continuationist. They’ve written convincingly (Dr. Grudem, Dr. Piper), with ample biblical support, advocating the continuationist view. And these men, and others, have convinced many that the cessationist view is simply wrong. I think that’s the reason some cessationists work so hard trying to prove that “God doesn’t do that anymore”. It’s a desperate attempt to keep people from "escaping" the narrow confines of cessationism.

Let me back up. I said cessationists don’t believe God any longer bestows any supernatural spiritual gifts. Well, let’s check and see if this is so. Looking at 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, and thinking about all I’ve read and heard from cessationists over the years, you can eliminate “the utterance of wisdom”, “the utterance of knowledge”, “gifts of healing”, “the working of miracles”, “prophecy”, “tongues”, “the interpretation of tongues”, and perhaps “the ability to distinguish between spirits”, as spiritual gifts that are available to the Church today. That leaves you with “faith” as the only gift that cessationists will allow.

The list in Romans 12:6-8 fares better. In this list, you would just have to eliminate “prophecy” as a gift available to the Church today. “Service”, “teaching”, “exhortation”, giving, leading, and mercy remain available for the Church.

So, I restate what I said before: Cessationists don’t believe that God any longer bestows any supernatural spiritual gifts. Not that the remaining gift that Paul mentions in Romans and 1 Corinthians aren’t supernatural but, really, with the right training, one could “pass” as spiritually “gifted” in the average evangelical church without the “gift” really having anything to do with the Spirit of God. It comes through in every discussion of spiritual gifts that I have ever heard. Most of our “gifts” function just fine, thank you, without the Holy Spirit. There’s nothing supernatural about them.

But, as I read Scripture, spiritual gifts must be supernatural, or they’re not spiritual gifts; they’re only merely human abilities. Look carefully at 1 Corinthians 12:7:

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit…”

What are spiritual gifts? They are a “manifestation of the Spirit”—they are supernatural. They are not produced naturally; they are not talents or abilities. Spiritual gifts are produced by the Holy Spirit—they are super-natural—above our natural ability to perform.
That’s what I find so wrong about cessationism. Cessationism seeks to eliminate that which cannot be controlled or explained or regulated or honed in an approved seminary.

But, what irritates me, is that some cessationists aren’t satisfied with just trying to control what God can or can’t do in their churches, but they have to keep beating the same dead horse, blogging and producing books and other literature, to argue why no one else should do unapproved things in their churches (or in their private lives, like pray in tongues).

What are they so worried about anyway? How are you going to prevent somebody from praying in tongues in their private devotional life? You can’t! Does the pronouncement that God will only speak through the Bible and no other way, actually prevent God from speaking directly to any individual by His Spirit? No it doesn’t!

For the record: I don’t speak in tongues. But, if I did, I certainly wouldn’t tell a cessationist!

Why does this bother me? Because, honestly, I believe cessationism is just a variant form of unbelief.

Why? Because, if God is God (and He is!), He can do whatever He wants to do! He hasn’t changed. He said so! “For I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6a). God gives “the manifestation of the Spirit”—spiritual gifts—“to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:7, 11). And if God wants to give someone the gift of tongues, for instance, that’s His business, not mine! If God wants to speak to someone directly by His Spirit, first of all, know that He can, but, also, know that He has that right!

To think otherwise, in my opinion, smacks of unbelief.

The Scripture passage most often cited to “prove” that “God doesn’t do that anymore”, is 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. We’re told that “the perfect” of verse 10 is the completed canon of Scripture. Well, if that’s so, then, according to verse 12, we now “know fully” and see “face to face”. But, that’s not true, is it? You don’t know fully, and neither do I. You don’t see clearly, and neither do I. “The perfect” has not yet come. One day, “the perfect” will come: Jesus Christ our Lord, in all His glory. “When he appears we shall be like him [i.e., “perfect”], because we shall see him as he is [“face to face”, no longer “in a mirror dimly”]” (1 John 3:2).

So, since “the perfect” has not yet come, “prophecies”, “tongues”, and “knowledge” continues!

Well, what is the continuation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit supposed to look like today?

I don’t know!

And, guess what? I don’t have to know! I only know this: God can do what He wants, and He doesn’t need my permission or approval to do it!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Pleasing God

Today, in church, we sang this worship song:

I bow my knee before Your throne;
I know my life is not my own;
I offer up a song of praise
To bring You pleasure, Lord.

I seek the Giver, not the gift;
My heart's desire is to lift
You high above all earthly kings,
To bring You pleasure, Lord.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Glory to the King!

(Bonnie Deuschle)

You know, it still amazes me that I could possibly bring pleasure to God. I know too much about me. Most of the time, I can't even please myself! Yet, Scripture says I can bring pleasure to God.
"So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil." (2 Corinthians 5:6-10)
Did you see that? "We make it our aim to please him." So, it is possible to please God.
Or, consider this:
"By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Hebrews 11:5-6)
Enoch "pleased God". Why? Because he had faith in God: "Without faith it is impossible to please him"; therefore, it must be possible to please God, if we have faith in Him.
But, how is it possible for sinful human beings like us to please holy God?
"Since then we have a great high priest..." (Hebrews 4:14)
We can please God because we have One who has made atonement for our sins. In Christ, we are made acceptable to God. Through Christ, we can approach God with worship that is pleasing to God.
"As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:4-5)
This precious truth that, through Jesus Christ, I can actually bring pleasure to my God fills my heart with love and praise.
My heart's desire is to lift You high above all earthly kings,
To bring You pleasure, Lord.

Some of my experiences with Pentecostalism (Part 4)

Let me state, for the record, I am not suggesting uncritical endorsement of all the various forms of Pentecostalism I’ve encountered over the years. Far from it. There is much that I’ve described from my past that, at this stage of my life, I definitely would not endorse.

You must remember, however, that I did not grow up under thorough, sound, biblical teaching in church. The general method of preaching practiced by the various pastors I sat under was to take a verse of Scripture and then preach a message that may or may not have anything to do with the text. In Sunday School, by 5th or 6th grade, the teachers would sometimes ask me for answers. My real Bible teaching came from home, from my great-grandmother and her sister. They knew more about the Bible than the average evangelical that I encounter today (that’s both a tribute to God’s grace in their lives, and a criticism of the shallowness of the teaching in the average evangelical church today), but there was a whole lot they didn’t know and, quite frankly, because they were Black, they were never exposed to it. So, they taught me the best that they could.

So, again, I’m not so much endorsing as I am reporting what I’ve seen and heard. All these experiences are part of the journey I’ve taken to get to where I am today, particularly as it concerns my views of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. And, ultimately, that’s where I’m headed.

As I said in my previous post, one of the stages in my life which saw some of the greatest changes occurred between my salvation in 1980, when I was still in high school, and my graduation from graduate school in 1986. When I started college I was still very much a new Christian. Being denominationally loyal, I sought out the church in town that was of my denomination, rather than looking for the best church. Sadly, the church of my denomination in that town was not even as good as my church at home, as far as helping me spiritually. But, God was faithful in that He kept me, taught me as I read His Word, and brought Christian friends into my life to encourage me.

A few of these friends came from a Pentecostal background. My earlier encounters with Pentecostals and Pentecostal practice made this inhibited and repressed boy naturally curious about believers who could experience such joyful freedom in their worship. From observing, talking to and just being around these friends, I learned, first of all, that any stereotype of Pentecostals as ignorant fanatics, or people who are odd and irrational, was false. Remember, I was in college. These friends were not ignorant; they were college-educated or earning their college educations, like I was. These people helped remove for me some of the mystery surrounding Pentecostalism. I had the opportunity to watch these friends in worship as they danced or “shouted” before the Lord. I learned that the “holy dance” wasn’t so much about being “overcome” with the Spirit as it was about having the freedom of spirit to express one’s joy enthusiastically before the Lord. They could control themselves, but they chose not to: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1).

I also remember a couple brief conversations about “tongues” or glossolalia. Two friends in particular admitted to me that they utilized a “prayer language”—in their private devotions. They described it as something natural, not weird or out-of control, but under the control of the speaker. That seemed to me to accord with Scripture: “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32/in context).

Admittedly, I was curious about the whole idea of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals traditionally taught that tongues were the necessary evidence of the Spirit’s presence, pointing to Acts 2:4; 10:45-46; and 19:6. My friends did not hold to that position. But, whatever the case, I really felt I needed something more. It wasn’t a case of devaluing Christ Jesus, rather, it was a case of seeing my sin and a needy world and realizing that I didn’t have what it took to conquer sin in my life, minister to a weak and wayward church, or reach a lost and dying world. I needed what these people claimed to have.

About this time, God demonstrated His kindness to me by introducing me to the local Christian bookstores. The authors of Christian books have been my mentors and teachers ever since. What I lacked in the local church, I found in Christian writers. Among some of the early books I bought, were about three titles by Charismatic authors. I must admit, I probably wouldn’t recommend any of these books to anyone today. Primarily for this reason: You must be able to eat the fish and spit out the bones. Do you understand? I don’t condemn these writers. One book, in particular, helped me greatly. But, lest someone try eating these “fish” and accidentally end up with a “bone” stuck in their throat, I’d rather recommend other writing.

Nevertheless, it was these Charismatic books that God ordained to come into my hands. They’re still in my possession. As I sit here typing, they sit on the shelves next to me. I generally don’t get rid of any book I receive. To me, many of these books represent stages in my spiritual growth; they remind me of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, by the grace of God. So, I’m sorry if anyone thinks my library is somehow “spoiled” by the inclusion of Charismatic literature. It’s my library—it’s what God gave to me—and I like it.

Anyway, here’s how these particular Charismatic books helped me: God used them to stimulate in my spirit a desire to seek Him. As I said, I became hungry for something more from God. I can imagine someone reading this and asking, “Isn’t Jesus enough?” Well, yes! Jesus is enough! But, didn’t the apostle Paul say “I want to know Him” (Philippians 3:10/in context)? Paul already knew Christ, yet he said, “I want to know Him!” Paul wanted something more from God. Moses was privileged above anyone else in history: He spent 40 days with God on Sinai and received directly from the hand of God “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Now, you would think that would be more than enough to satisfy Moses. You would think he could live with that. But, what does Moses say? “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). Moses wanted something more from God. This is where I was, and I began to pray toward that end—seeking to know God more, seeking to experience Him in a deeper way, seeking the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

Did God answer my prayer? I believe He did. First of all, I’m convinced that any usefulness I’ve had in the Lord’s service through the ministry of preaching, teaching, writing, singing, playing the organ and piano, or leading God’s people in worship, over these past 20 years, has been the result of what God began to do in my life in answer to my prayers for more of Him. The spiritual gifts I have, God gave me in answer to those prayers. I’m convinced of it. I have desires and interests and passions and abilities that I know did not exist before I first began to seek God for the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I know that! The passion that I’ve had these 20 years to feed and tend Christ’s sheep (see John 21:15, 16, 17) came into being right there in my dorm room, in graduate school, as I poured out my heart to God in prayer for the Holy Spirit.

So, yes, God answered my prayer. He didn’t necessarily answer in the way I expected. I’ve continued to struggle with sin. I think the Wesleyan holiness and Pentecostal camps are correct to desire freedom from sin, but they go too far when they expect perfection or the eradication of the sin nature in this life. Concerning the human struggle with sin, I’ve received far, far greater help from J.C. Ryle and John Owen (who I am currently reading). But, in His mercy, God used those books by Charismatic authors to stir in my spirit a desire, a hunger, for more of Him. And God answered that prayer.

I remember one night in particular—I can’t adequately describe it, and I don’t want to glorify an experience—but it seemed that God Himself came down and filled my room with His glory. I hear and read what the anti-Pentecostals say, but I feel like Peter and John: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather that to God. You must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). And I cannot deny what God has done in my soul.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Some of my experiences with Pentecostalism (Part 3)

The fact of Pentecostalism’s influence on more mainstream churches wasn’t new, but I was in high school by the time I became aware of it. For instance, to my surprise, I found out that the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation that my family was a member of had experienced Pentecostal “outpouring” as early as 1923. A Pentecostal minister was invited by the pastor to conduct a “revival”. Several members of the church, including the pastor and his wife, received the Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit”. This happening brought about a church split, as many of those who received “the Holy Ghost” left the AME church to form what became the first Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in our area. The pastor, his wife, and the rest of those who “received the Holy Ghost”, however, remained with the denomination. This well-regarded pastor—who, by all accounts that I ever heard, was a godly pastor and Bible teacher—led my “home” church for about 21 years, from its founding in 1905, until a few years after he received the Pentecostal “blessing”, at which time he was transferred by the bishop.

My great-grandmother, her sister, and their parents united with what became our “home” church in 1923, shortly after the Pentecostal split occurred, having migrated from Alabama a couple of years earlier. My great-grandmother told me that she remembered the pastor’s wife speaking in tongues. She said the pastor’s wife, on occasion, would leave the sanctuary during worship, go into a back room of the church, and speak in tongues out of sight of the congregation (you could still hear her). Apparently that wasn’t an unusual Sunday morning occurrence. Of course, by the time I came along, all evidences of Pentecostalism had long ago disappeared, and only a very few even remembered that such a thing had ever happened.

Well, my “home” church’s founding pastor, in about 1926, was sent by the bishop to lead a small group of AME Christians, in another city about 30 miles south, who had also received the Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and left their traditional AME church. So, this “Pentecostal” AME pastor was paired with these “Pentecostal” AME Christians, and he organized them into a new AME church. He would remain as pastor of this small flock for over 20 years (The pastor is pictured here, front row, far right, standing next to his wife, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary).

Moving ahead some 50 years, to my high school years: There is a Black Baptist church in town which comes under the influence of Pentecostal teaching. The pastor at this church had “received the Holy Ghost” and basically, within the period of a few short years, had succeeded in turning this previously traditional Black Baptist congregation into a “Bapticostal” church. This church was very popular with Black teenagers in the area. Several of my high school classmates attended this church and came under the influence of this Pentecostal teaching. However, I was impressed by what I saw: Kids that used to cuss and fight stopped cussing and fighting, girls started dressing more modestly, some kids that used to be bullies became nice and kind. In my mind, there had to be something to this “Holy Ghost” teaching, because I saw it changing lives.

A bit later, also during my high school years, a relatively new AME congregation (this congregation had a few years earlier separated from my “home” church), for which I was the organist, began to fellowship with that “Pentecostal” AME (“Methodicostal”) church I was talking about earlier. Some 25 years after their founder’s death, the Pentecostal influence at this church was still strong. What brought about this fellowship was an invitation to a long-time preacher at that church to come and conduct a week of nightly “revival” meetings at the AME church where I was the organist. During these meetings I got to hear and observe firsthand some of the theology and practices of Pentecostalism. The “highlight” of the week was the final night (I believe it was a Friday night), when the preacher would pray for people that they might be “filled with the Holy Ghost”.

That night, the preacher preached about being filled with the Holy Spirit. I don’t remember the text or anything specific that he said; I just remember the sermon was about being filled with the Holy Spirit. As the organist, I had a “front-row seat”, so I saw everything that went on. No one spoke in tongues—in fact, the preacher did indicate that tongues were not a necessary evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit—but it was both fascinating and eerie to see what did happen. One individual just trembled from head to toe. It was obvious she was not trying to do this; it was just happening. Another individual collapsed on the floor (from a kneeling position at the altar rail). Someone else screamed at the top of their lungs (I tell you, that scream would have awakened the dead!). Others did not respond in any overt, visible way. Some just quietly wiped away tears. Remember, I’m only reporting some of what I saw; I still can’t explain it (and if you think you can explain it, perhaps you’re not as smart as you think you are). Needless to say, the memory of those meetings stayed with me a long time. In fact, I think what I saw and heard stimulated within me an interest in the present-day ministry of the Holy Spirit, for interestingly enough, I saw some people change: seemingly greater joy in the Lord and a greater seriousness about the things of God.

It’s important to know that about this time, somewhere between my junior and senior years of high school, by God’s grace and power, I was born again and became a Christian. I think in some way God used the changes that I saw in some of my high school classmates to get my attention. No, I wasn’t involved in any gross sins; after all, I was a “goody-two-shoes” church boy—I knew how to act the part. However, deep-down I wasn’t sure that anything savingly real had ever occurred in my soul. Praise God, after I was born again, I no longer had to wonder had I ever experienced the salvation that others testified about. I knew my sins were forgiven for Christ’s sake. I knew I was in His hands.

Yet, I also knew I wasn’t perfect—far from it. To hear others testify to the blessing that had come to their life through the infilling of the Holy Spirit stimulated in me an increasing interest to know the power of the Holy Spirit in my own life. The stage of my life which saw some of the greatest changes occurred between my salvation in 1980 and my graduation from graduate school in 1986, and it's my contention that a growing personal interest in the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit played a decisive role in the changes that would take place.
(To be continued…)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Some of my experiences with Pentecostalism (Part 2)

When I was a boy, on Sunday evenings, I would listen to the live radio broadcast of the small “sanctified” church that was on our block (literally, down the street and around the corner). “Sanctified” was the term used in the Black community to describe Pentecostals (the members, themselves, referred to each other as “saints”). This church was a congregation of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a predominantly Black, Christian denomination and currently (I think) the largest Pentecostal denomination in this country.

On this radio broadcast I would get a taste of how “sanctified” people worship. I recall hearing songs that had a very upbeat, fast tempo. With the Hammond organ, drums and tambourines, you could not say there was anything sad and mournful about sanctified music. (Just a word about tambourines: Along with their Bibles, some of the saints would bring their own tambourine to church. We’re talking genuine participatory worship.) As in most Black churches, whatever the denomination, there was hand clapping (always on beats 2 and 4; never, ever on beats 1 and 3), but the tempos were so fast, it was difficult for most of us non-Pentecostals to keep up (I’m pleased to say, when it comes to hand-clapping, I eventually learned to keep up with a sanctified beat!).

By far the most unusual features of sanctified worship were the dancing and speaking in tongues. When the services would get into high gear, the tambourines and drums would beat out the rhythm for the “holy dance”. (It was a bit later before I actually saw holy dancing in action—quite a sight to see, by the way.) The percussion would whip things up to a very fast rate of tempo (still emphasizing beats 2 and 4), and the Hammond organ would play along using a rapidly running bass. When I heard that music, I knew the saints were holy dancing (or “shouting”, as they also called it). It was fascinating to me since absolutely nothing like that ever occurred in my staid African Methodist Episcopal church (some of the women in my church would occasionally holler and scream…but dancing? That was going too far, for us AMEs.). The “shouting” or holy dancing would go on until the saints got it out of their system.

The other unusual feature was speaking in tongues by the pastor (I can’t tell you whether it was genuine or not; I’m just reporting what happened.). No doubt, others were also occasionally speaking in tongues, but since this was radio, the pastor was the only one I heard. Tongues were, indeed, unusual, but I didn’t find it scary, demonic, threatening, or anything like that. I just understood at the time, this is how “sanctified” people worship—this is simply what they do.

This was the extent of my exposure to Pentecostalism until my high school years. At that time, I became aware that Pentecostalism wasn’t restricted to the Pentecostal church, but it also appeared in more mainstream churches.
(To be continued…)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Some of my experiences with Pentecostalism

Recently, I’ve come across some discussions on the blogosphere (most notably at Pulpit Magazine: here, here, and here) about the gifts of the Spirit, cessationism versus continuationism, the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, and so forth, subjects which are in some way identified with Pentecostalism. I’d like to eventually give you some of my thoughts about cessationism versus continuationism, but I thought, perhaps, it would be helpful if you first knew a little bit about where I’m coming from on this subject.

First of all, I’m not a Pentecostal. But, I have had some exposure to Pentecostalism—starting from childhood, actually. Pentecostals lived in my neighborhood. In fact, we lived across the alley from an older Pentecostal pastor, who happened to be a friend of the family. He died when I was about nine years old. Maybe some of you out there have had nothing but negative experiences with Pentecostalism or negative images of Pentecostals but, in general, my experiences have not been bad.

There were three types of churches in the Black community in the area where I grew up: Black Baptist, Black Methodist (AME), and Black Pentecostal. When I was a boy, Black people called the Pentecostals and their churches “sanctified” (I know all true believers in Christ are sanctified, not just Pentecostal believers, but let me just tell the story). Most, though not all, of these “sanctified” churches were members of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).

But, before I go on, a little bit of church history (I'm writing this off the top of my head, but, I believe I've got the basic facts correct):

The Church of God in Christ is a predominantly Black denomination, founded in about 1897 (if I remember correctly) by C.H. Mason and C.P. Jones—two Black holiness Baptist preachers. In about 1905 or 1907, Mason visited the Azusa Street “revival” in Los Angeles and experienced the “baptism of the Holy Ghost” and spoke in tongues. As I understand it, Mason came back from Azusa teaching the Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Ghost”. Jones didn’t accept this addition of tongues to the holiness doctrine of a “second work of grace”, so he left Mason and started the Church of God, Holiness. Mason, who claimed the name Church of God in Christ was revealed to him in a vision, kept the group he and Jones founded and moved it in a Pentecostal direction. I don’t think it’s well known that the COGIC is older and larger than the more well-known Assemblies of God, and one of the fastest-growing denominations in this country. Also, I found it particularly interesting to learn that the COGIC, under Black leadership, was an interracial group. Sadly (and so typical of racial relations in the U.S.), in about 1914, whites pull out of the COGIC to form the Assemblies of God.

End of history lesson.

Anyway, when I was growing up, you could usually recognize a “sanctified” woman or girl by the fact that they wore absolutely no makeup and never wore slacks or pants. Sanctified folks believed in holiness, which usually seemed to mean no drinking, no smoking, no dancing or partying, no makeup, and no pants on women.

As far as worship in the sanctified church, you could count on lively, upbeat music, complete with Hammond organ, drums and tambourines. You seldom, if ever, saw drums in the Baptist or Methodist churches, and you never saw tambourines. In the sanctified church you were guaranteed to have those instruments. The reason I know this is because there was a little sanctified church on the block where I grew up. Since they had no air conditioning, their windows would be open in the summer, and you could hear the pastor preaching and the people singing all over the neighborhood. They also had service nearly all day on Sundays. “Morning” worship lasted until about 2pm. Then, I think there was an afternoon service. Finally, this church had a Sunday evening live radio broadcast, which I used to listen to, occasionally.

It was on their radio broadcast that I would hear what, to me, were some of the most unusual features of “sanctified” worship.
(To be continued…)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Random thoughts about the church growth movement (Part 5)

Why was I feeling down and sorry for myself after reading a church growth magazine? It was because there is something about the church growth movement that makes you want to compare yourself with those “successful” pastors and churches that are being touted today throughout evangelicalism.
It is my belief that the church growth/“seeker-sensitive”/“purpose-driven” movement is inherently man-centered. The philosophy of the church growth movement causes one to focus on other people and on oneself. And that’s the heart of the problem! Once you get your eyes on people and on yourself, and start comparing yourself to other people, you’re going feel discouraged if you don’t “measure up”.

This is wrong. This is unbiblical. This is sinful.

God wants His people to be God-centered and God-focused. With our eyes on God, we won’t be discouraged and we won’t be proud. We’ll “think with sober judgment”, as we ought (Romans 12:3). It is my belief that churches would be better served (though, some of them might become a bit smaller) if they just stuck to the Bible.

In contrast to the man-centered rhetoric of the church growth movement, there is this encouraging word from the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1:17-31):
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
When I read God’s Word, I’m encouraged, because I’m certainly not "wise according to worldly standards", powerful by any definition, or “of noble birth”. I’m sure the average, highly-trained, mainline, Protestant minister would consider me “foolish” (Perhaps even some of my unsaved family members would think so, also). I certainly feel weak when I consider the immense responsibility that goes along with being a minister of the gospel. But, look at what we’re told: “[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus…” It’s not about me and how qualified I am by man's standard; it’s about God. This is all about God’s wisdom, His power and His ability!

That’s not only an encouraging word; it’s liberating!

I pray that more evangelical churches would conduct themselves as if God’s Word were really true. You know what I mean? We’ve simply got our focus in the wrong place. We think too highly of ourselves.

You know, I think I’ll just stick to what God has to say.

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Random thoughts about the church growth movement (Part 4)

Finally, I was also discouraged after reading this magazine of the church growth movement because, deep down, I knew I could never meet the leadership standards of the church growth experts. Let me explain.

I’m a product of the traditional Black Church. Everything about this magazine screamed white, suburban, upper-middle class, American. As I wrote earlier, I came away feeling, this is not for the Black community, not at all. In all honesty, I can’t relate to the values of the church growth movement. These “values” are foreign to me and to the church-going Black community in which I was raised.

But, this magazine touched an even deeper nerve with me. You see, almost eighteen years ago, with fear and trembling, I answered what I then felt (and still feel) was God’s call to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. I said “Yes!” to God, not because I felt spiritually worthy or academically qualified or theologically knowledgeable. Rather, I said “Yes!” to God because I saw that people without Christ were lost, and many of them were in the church. I said “Yes!” because I saw people in the Black community perishing because of a lack of knowledge of God and His Word. I said “Yes!” because I felt God had called me to go wherever He sent me, to such as these, and “Preach!” That was a Saturday night, and I was in my bedroom, alone with God. I was 25 years old and single at the time, living at home with my great-grandfather (who died about four months later).

The next morning, Sunday, I told my great-grandfather what had happened. When I got to church later that morning, I told my pastor what I felt God had told me to do. I wasn’t subjected by my church to a spiritual gift assessment or required to take a personality test. I wasn’t required to enroll in an approved seminary. The pastor simply made an announcement to the church and a date was set for me to preach my first sermon, in order to demonstrate if I, indeed, had “the gift”.

Although I’d never studied homiletics, exegesis, hermeneutics, or anything like that, I set about preparing a message to preach. I prepared with prayer. I obtained my text and subject by prayer (Luke 19:11-27, “Will You Be Ready When Jesus Comes?”). I studied my King James Version Bible and a couple other translations, along with help from my Strong’s Concordance, and prayed to God for understanding. I wrote down what I felt God wanted me to say and, the Lord being my Helper, I delivered that message on Wednesday night, May 31, 1989. I had wondered how I would ever find enough to say for more than five or ten minutes. As if to dispel any fear that I wouldn’t have anything to say, God helped me preach for 40 minutes!

This was the humble start of a nearly 18-year odyssey that has taken me “through many dangers, toils and snares”.

Reading this magazine, and looking back on 18 years, which include many disappointments related to career and ministry, I began to feel very discouraged because I didn’t “measure up”. The church growth movement touts excellence, relevance and success. Now, I do the best I can do, but I wouldn’t call myself “excellent”, when it comes to ministry. I can’t say that I’ve ever tried to “make” the Word of God relevant. In fact, I never thought it was irrelevant! I don’t think of myself as a “success”. I mean, I’m not an entrepreneur or an innovator. I can’t point to anything I’ve “launched”. I suppose “unchurched Harry and Mary” would say I was a decent enough guy, but I can’t say they would be drawn to me. In fact, they’d probably be repelled by my conservative theology. I have no seminary degree and no record of pastoral achievement. I don’t know how (and, really, have never tried) to be clever or engaging. I don’t have a desire to “connect” with today’s culture. When God gives the opportunity, I just preach.

So, after reading what the church growth people had to say, I was feeling down and sorry for myself. Why? (To be continued…)

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Random thoughts about the church growth movement (Part 3)

I was also dismayed that there is more than a little hint that growth (i.e., more people) indicates God’s favor and blessing upon a church. Strongly implied is the belief that small churches lack God’s blessing and are, therefore, inferior. I think this is an insult to small churches all over this country…and the world, for that matter. There are churches where the gospel is preached by godly men, where the people are sincere in their faith and loving which, for reasons known only to God, will never grow to be large. For instance, some churches, because of their remote location or settled populace, will never attract new people because there rarely are any new people to attract. For many reasons, some churches will never grow to be large. It does not automatically follow that these churches lack the blessing of God.
The same thing can be said about pastors and preachers. Not every man that God calls will draw the crowds of a Whitefield or a Spurgeon when he preaches. Some may labor faithfully for years, like Noah, and see few, if any, converts. Others may face constant rejection like the prophet Jeremiah. The point is: God’s favor and blessing upon a church or ministry does not necessarily translate into numerical growth.

Secondly, there is more than one way to grow. Not all growth is numerical. There is so much focus on numbers, but a far greater concern should be, is there spiritual growth? Isn’t a small church, where Christians are being faithfully taught from God’s Word, lovingly discipled by their brothers and sisters in Christ, actively learning and living out the faith in the routine of daily life, and growing in the likeness of Christ—isn’t such a church also growing, because it is filled with Christians who are themselves growing?

I noticed something interesting when I viewed the online version of this magazine. On the webpage, I noticed a link to the “Top 100 Fastest Growing U.S. Churches”. Looking at the list for 2006, I saw the names of several churches I’ve heard about. Among these several churches, I recognized churches that could (charitably?) be characterized as being on the doctrinal “fringe” of Christianity. I recognized other churches that probably, to most Christians, represent a more mainstream, biblical version of Christianity. Here’s my point: size of church apparently has nothing to do with the doctrine taught or not taught. A church could be wallowing in heresy, but still gain recognition as one of the “Top 100 Fastest Growing U.S. Churches”. The implication of the "Top 100" list is that these churches are successful, blessed churches where God’s Spirit is at work bringing phenomenal growth. But, if false doctrine is being taught, believed and embraced, can all the numerical growth really be of God? I can’t see how that is possible. It seems to me that it could not be God’s blessing upon a church when God is being dishonored by false teaching.

I’ve known of churches that were growing numerically but whose leaders had sin issues. I used to struggle with trying to reconcile the numerical growth with the sin in the leadership, until I came to realize that large numbers of people prove absolutely nothing. If the “growth” was really evidence of God’s blessing, then the unrepentant sin in the leadership would prove that God didn’t really care about sin. Obviously, that can’t be correct. God does care about sin, therefore, the “growth” wasn’t evidence of God’s blessing; rather, the growth proved nothing! Churches can grow in numbers when the Word of God is accurately and faithfully taught, and churches can grow numerically where heresy is taught and the leadership lives in sin. Just look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). This “church” has grown tremendously in numbers over the last 20 years, but it is still a false, cultic religion. Ted Haggard, the now disgraced former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, pastored one of the “Top 100”. Obviously, his sin didn’t hinder his church from growing.

So, I say again, numerical growth proves nothing. The notion that bigger is better is, basically, unbiblical.

(To be continued…)

(Part 1, Part 2)