Saints and/or Sinners: The Desiring God Conference for Pastors 2014

It appears that I wasn’t the only one thinking about the identity of the Christian believer at the recent Desiring God Pastor’s Conference on union with Christ in terms of whether believers are simultaneously saints and sinners or simply saints who sin. My question (one of my sentences blended with others) was one of many fielded by the conferences plenary speakers John Piper, Michael Horton and Sinclair Ferguson [Audio here: 3:30-14:25]. I asked,

“If we are definitively “in Christ” and no longer in Adam (Ro 5-6), are we not definitively saints and not sinners?”

The answers were a bit mixed and appeared combined with some uncertainty and I wish I could have pushed back a little more to clarify what I was intending. My basic reason for asking the question is, to use Sinclair Ferguson’s phrase later in the panel, I think we live far under our privileges as Christian believers. And I wonder if one of the reasons we do this is that in trying to keep us from the errors of Christian perfectionism we undercut our glorious gospel identity. In no way was my question an attempt to minimize the radical nature of sin or the struggle of indwelling sin that resides within every believer.

Dr. Piper got at what I was after in speaking of his friend that came out of a homosexual lifestyle and became a Christian. This man would not let Piper use homosexual as a noun for him because this is not who he was. At conversion this dear man knew that his identity had fundamentally switched no matter what his struggle with a particular sin might be. The sin did not define him anymore. His name had changed.

And I am not certain that we should use “sinner” as a noun for any Christian. Dr. Ferguson, in his earlier talk at the conference, discussed baptism as a “naming event” and the fact that Jesus was baptized into sinners in Adam so that we might be baptized into him. Romans 5 and 6, which Ferguson beautifully unpacked, is clear that Christians have been taken out of Adam completely and placed into Christ. It is not a one-foot in and one-foot out deal.

In fact, many Reformed types don’t seem to bat an eye at speaking of those “in Christ” having undergone a fundamental identity switch in several categories, but we seem hesitant on the sinner/saint category. (I think primarily because of Martin Luther’s maxim simultaneously saint and sinner, Simul iustus et peccator, that Dr. Horton mentioned.)

We are not children of wrath and sons of God. We are not in the dark and in the light. We are not dead in sin and alive to God. We are not servants of the prince of the power of the air and servants of King Jesus. We are not slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness. The transfer is fundamentally complete in all of these categories even though our experience varies. So are we doing a disservice to our gospel identity when we don’t make the transfer from sinner to saint definitive?

To get back to Piper in the Q&A, Christian evangelicalism is indeed infected with those who minimize sin. The Osteenization of Christianity makes those with a high view of sin want to do all they can to preserve the seriousness of sin and to keep us from a chipper view of sinful men and women apart from Christ or a passive attitude toward making war on indwelling sin. Those in revivalistic parts of the charismatic movement who speak of walking weeks at a time without sinning cause the same reaction from those who will not deny the lingering tentacles of sin on the best of days. These super-rarely-ever-sinning-Christians are walking on the precipice of breaking the Apostle John’s warning in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” These are aberrations. However, it is also the charismatic movement that seems to have a focus upon the identity of the Christian believer that the Reformed camp could use a bunch more of.

Nowhere can I find New Testament writers calling God’s people sinners.

That is except possibly one place.

Paul called the people of God, even at their worst, saints (see those Corinthians in 1 Cor. 1:2), but he did speak of himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I wonder though if this was more of a reference to all that Christ saved him from than a reference to his self-consciousness as a Christian believer? This appears intended more to demonstrate the radical lengths God’s vastly gracious gospel goes in saving sinners no matter what their sins than in defining the fundamental identity marker for the Christian believer. Paul was deeply conscious of what God had saved him from and what God had saved him to.

It is good for us to remember who we were apart from Christ and who we are in Christ. The structure of Paul’s letters demonstrate that it is imperative we remember both. There are those in charismatic circles who seem to want us to forget entirely who we were and those in Reformed circles who seem to minimize who we are. Rehearsing the fact that you were a child of wrath reminds us of all that we have been saved from, and remembering that we are sons of God reminds us of what we have been saved to. Both are critical. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t structure his letters to remind us of these realities in the way he does. Nor should Christians only do one at the exclusion of the other. Depressive defeatism and overly optimistic triumphalism are both errors.

Piper thought this question might be contextually dependent: if you are a pastor surrounded by those who are continuously walking around defeated you need to emphasize saint, and if you are a pastor surrounded by those who walk around treating their sin lightly you need to emphasize sinner. I understand what he is getting at, but I’m not certain this is correct. I don’t know that Paul thought that this was a contextual issue.

Paul may go a little more Romans 1 and Ephesians 2:1-3 and jump into warning mode on those who minimize their sin, but I’m not certain he would—at the identity level—call true saints sinners. Would he name them presently in categories that belong both to their sinful past and their eternal inheritance? Wouldn’t this obstruct the privileges of the believer as God’s beloved sons in the family with big brother Jesus? Paul didn’t keep his beloved churches from sin by labeling them as simultaneously inside the realm of sin and inside the realm of righteousness. I don’t see him calling believers simultaneously saints and sinners, but I do see him reminding believers of who they were and who they are now.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed Paul’s appeal to the people of God in his use of indicatives and imperatives in the phrase: “Be who are!” And from what I’ve been seeing lately, this does not mean, be a sinner and a saint. Rather it means, be a saint, and put sin to death and put righteousness on accordingly.

You have a new name. You are new creation. Act like it.

But I admit: I’m still working through this. Thoughts?

John MacArthur’s *Strange Fire* Conference, Charismatics, & Christ

I really cannot think of any charge more severe to make toward other human beings than to say that they have blasphemed the Spirit of God.

I’m not normally the watchblogger type. I find many critical blogs and bloggers quarrelsome, and not to be in step with the characteristics of the godly. As the Apostle Paul put it, “…the Lord’s servant *must not* be quarrelsome” (2 Tim. 2:24, emphasis added).

Christian’s should be known much more by what and who they are for than by what and who they are against. Yes, Christians must distinguish between that which we are for and that which we are against, and this comes from naming what we are against, but this should not be our central mark. Nevertheless, what follows is all done with what began here in mind.

For some time now I have considered a blog post on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference that is coming up in October. After reading Reformed-Charismatic Adrian Warnock’s post today about John MacArthur essentially calling those in the charismatic movement blasphemers of the Spirit, I thought another one might be warranted.

Earlier this year I attended the Shepherd’s Conference and came away enriched by the ministry of John MacArthur (his deeply sobering sermon on Peter and Judas was dynamite) and others, but was quite disturbed by a promo vid for his future conference “Strange Fire”.

In it, MacArthur made, what I thought, was an extremely broad mischaracterization of an entire group of Christians, namely, the charismatic movement. He states,

It’s in the context of Leviticus 9 and 10 that I want to direct your attention towards “strange fire” that is being offered to God today. And it could well bring his judgment. What I’m talking about is the charismatic movement. It offers to God unacceptable worship. Distorted worship. It blasphemes the Holy Spirit. It attributes to the Holy Spirit, even the work of Satan.

When I heard this, I almost walked out of the conference. And this was not because I am unaware of aberrations and heresies within the charismatic movement. There are. Nor is it because I am unaware of MacArthur’s position on this. Years ago, I read most of Charismatic Chaos and his cessationist reading of Scripture is widely known. But it is irresponsible–to put it mildly–of him to lump an entire group of Christians as blasphemers of the Spirit. In fact, I believe, his sweeping generalization deeply grieves the Holy Spirit of God.

Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. And being or not being a charismatic is not the main thing. Jesus Christ, whom I know MacArthur and many charismatics love, is.

However, I don’t know that he even truly believes what he said here. It is my understanding that CJ Mahaney, a charismatic, preached in his pulpit and that he has relationships with other continuationist pastors like John Piper. Maybe it was intended to be alarmist to better “market” the conference? After all, in a later video, he seems to clean this up a touch, as he gives a “word of encouragement to faithful Pentecostals” and says that the conference is addressing the aberrations and extremes of the movement. (Would of been nice to hear that the first time). But this was *not* communicated in the first video, even if it was intended.

On a personal note, I too am charismatic. I was raised in an Assemblies of God church and love many in and am friends with some of the leaders of the movement itself. Though I am no longer a part of the Assemblies of God (even after attending one of there colleges) and disagree with certain doctrines and teachings of the charismatic movement, I also strongly believe that many of the desires and pursuits and experiences within the movement are because of the Scriptures not in spite of them. The zealous pursuit of spiritual gifts, the eager expectation for God himself to intervene and act tangibly in our midst, the passion for the “already” and the power (not just talk) of the kingdom of God, the pursuit of God’s healing and delivering power, the longing to be filled with the Spirit (not just once) but continually, are all biblically rooted desires and goals of the charismatic movement as a whole. We are brothers and sisters not enemies of the cross of Christ.

Blasphemy of the Spirit is a dead serious charge. I really cannot think of any charge more severe to make toward other human beings than to say that they have blasphemed the Spirit of God. The charismatic movement, as a whole, has not blasphemed the Spirit. Many affirm wholeheartedly the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. Sure, some charismatics can elevate, at least in emphasis, secondary issues (healing, experience, signs and wonders, etc.) above primary ones. But isn’t this exactly what MacArthur is doing here and then he’s calling others blasphemers for possibly doing the same thing?

I don’t doubt I will agree with some of the critiques within parts of the charismatic movement that will be made by the speakers at the Strange Fire conference. But the irresponsibility of MacArthur’s sweeping generalization should be candidly addressed and critiqued by other Christian leaders (continuationist or not). These kind of remarks further divide the church and grieve the Spirit by whom we all have been sealed.

Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. And being or not being a charismatic is not the main thing. Jesus Christ, whom I know MacArthur and many charismatics love, is.

A Scholar’s Take on Miracles, Raising the Dead & The God of Elijah

Prolific New Testament scholar Craig Keener’s recent gargantuan work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, discusses the New Testament descriptions of miracles and also reports contemporary testimonies of healing and, in the following portion, dead-raising:

While writing this book I have come across claims of nearly three hundred raisings, from well over 150 different sources

Again, recall the accounts of raisings from the dead surveyed earlier, which I will recall but not elaborate again here. A number of claims date from the early twentieth century, but again I focus on the far more numerous more recent ones. These accounts also involve Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the West. A number of these accounts involve persons who have been dead for many hours or sometimes even more than a day. Some are from people I not only interviewed but also knew personally, or met through my wife’s family knowing them personally; where possible I cross-checked interviewees’ testimony with other witnesses. Witnesses range from those participating in the prayers to a person raised herself. While writing this book I have come across claims of nearly three hundred raisings, from well over 150 different sources…

These sources may vary in their reliability, but a high proportion reflect reports from eyewitnesses that one would normally deem reliable. I am particularly impressed with reports from individuals whose character I know and trust. I do not include in the count cases of which I was informed…yet not permitted by my sources to uses because of the security situation in their countries. [p. 749-750. Also, Keener details the claims and evidences of several supernatural healings experienced through testimony of those he personally knows in a chart on p. 752-756 ]

In Keener’s conclusion he describes what his study for the book and his own past experience as an an atheist and his present experience as a Christian academic have led him to:

When I started writing the book, I felt some competition between my theistic theological sympathies…and the intellectual skepticism and reservations characteristic of my academic training…My earlier background as an atheist who valued only naturalistic empiricism probably reinforced some of the latter predilections. Despite having witnessed some healings in conjunction with prayer, especially in earlier years, more recent disappointments and (in my academic work, especially recently) imbibing an Enlightenment hermeneutic of suspicion had me primed for a significant degree of skepticism…

As a Christian I believed in miracles in principle but wondered about the veracity of many claims today…My training makes it easier to evaluate critically than to trust, but at some point the intellectual honesty valued in my training also compelled me to go back and critically evaluate the reasons why I found it so much easier to exercise skepticism than to exercise faith, even in the face of enormous evidence in favor of faith…

People are hurting and in tremendous need. Like Elisha, I want to cry out, “Where is the God of Elijah?”

…as a Christian, I believe that the Jesus of the Gospels is alive and still has compassion for the suffering. I yearn to watch God touch the broken today.

People are hurting and in tremendous need. Like Elisha, I want to cry out, “Where is the God of Elijah?” The point of this book has been to demonstrate the plausibility of miracle claims in the Gospels and Acts, with a secondary purpose of suggesting that these claims need not all be explained solely by recourse to natural causation. But for me personally as a convert to the Christian faith, work on this book has also brought afresh to my attention the dramatic, moving character of human need, as well as the desire of a compassionate and living God to meet those needs. It has reminded me how the Gospel accounts’ emphasis on healings is consistent with a God of compassion who cares about real issues of human life and death, issues that theology, philosophy, and exegesis in their most academic forms sometimes forget. I know that miracles often do not happen and that not every prayer is answered affirmatively  But whether through using medicine, prayer, or both, I now long more than ever to see those desperate human needs met. [p. 766, 767, 768.]

The Good-est Word: Thoughts on Jesus, Preaching, Prophecy & “That’s a Good Word”

Occasionally after preaching I’ve been told something like, “Good word!”, and, in some of the circles I run in, one of the favorite phrases is, “That’s a good word, right there!” What some mean by this is usually something like, “You did a great job preaching the Word tonight”, while in charismatic circles it tends to mean “God was prophetically speaking through you and I was encouraged.” Now, I’m all for “good words” whether they be fallible preaching of the revealed Word of God or fallible prophetic words given by God to his people to edify one another, but I am reminded in Hebrews that the best word has already been given. It has been spoken in the past and continues to speak today.

God’s greatest revelation of himself to his people is his Son, Jesus.

God has given the best word–the goodest word, if you will–in Jesus. Hebrews 1 says that God has spoken to his people throughout history through the prophets (1:1), but that something has definitively changed, that is, God has now “spoken to us by his Son” (1:2). The prophetic words of God have reached their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the greatest message from God–because he is the fulfillment of all the prior messages from God and is, in fact, the very divine Word of God (Jn. 1:1, 14). God’s greatest revelation of himself to his people is his Son, Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews gives us some of the reasons for this:

Sadly, sometimes in evangelicalism there is an incessant Christian hunt for a better word.

  • Jesus is “the heir of all things” (1:2)
  • Jesus was the person “through” which God “created the world” (1:2)
  • Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God”(1:3)
  • Jesus is the “exact imprint of [God’s] nature” (1:3)
  • Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3)
  • Jesus made “purification for sins” (1:3)
  • Jesus is exalted and reigns “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3)

Therefore we are to measure fallible “good words”–be it preaching, teaching, prophecy, etc–by how much it highlights and pushes us to this glorious Jesus.

Sadly, sometimes in evangelicalism there is an incessant Christian hunt for a better word. We need a better preacher than the one we have, a better Christian podcast than the same ole’ same ole, a better prophetic word than the last one, a better conference with better speakers, a better author or the same author with a bigger & better book, a better something. Oftentimes I think this is because we are looking for something new when we should be looking for something God has already revealed in Jesus.

God’s got nothing better to say than what he’s already spoken in Jesus.

Jesus is the best word from God you will ever hear. There isn’t anything better. Ever. The hunt is over. God’s voice to us simply doesn’t get any better than Jesus.

The problem is we often want a Jesus shaped in our own image and not the glorious Jesus that will shape us in his. If you are desperate to hear the voice of God–to hear a good word–run to God’s Son Jesus and do so by breathing in the breath of God’s Spirit in the Book. I do not mean that God won’t speak to you personally or from others in fresh ways, but I do mean that God’s got nothing better to say than what he’s already spoken in Jesus.

All preaching, teaching, prophetic gifting, etc., is only as good as its reflects and reveals God’s Son. God’s Son is God’s goodest Word.

Where Powerlessness in the Church Comes From

I’ve been convicted recently of a lack of expectancy in my prayers.  Oftentimes I don’t expect God to answer.

Sam Storms points out that this attitude itself is where powerlessness in the church comes from.

The following quote by Storms is provocative, convicting, and compelling:

“All of us wish that contemporary church life was a more complete reflection of the New Testament ideal.  But we cannot, we must not, respond to the discomfort and confusion this often creates with anything less than more prayer for the sick, greater zeal for spritual gifts, and deeper desire for the hand of God to perform these signs and wonders that bless his people and magnify his name.  Nothing will contribute more to the entrenchment of powerlessness in the church than a theology that empties prayer of meaningful of expectancy.”  (Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?,  325-326)