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A Response to Tim Keller and Blaise Pascal

In a nicely written and enjoyable article Tim Keller writes of Blaise Pascal’s advice on the necessary, or at least wise, stages of bringing a person to the way to faith. He writes:

“First, you have to disarm and surprise them. Many people hope Christianity does not make sense on any level. . . . When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer’s character—comes across as well informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.”

Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true. . . . We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.

If we’ve pointed out such things in an effective way, then some (though surely not all) will say, “If Christianity really can give that, it would be wonderful. Yes, it would be great if it were true. But of course Christianity isn’t. What a shame!”

Keller goes on to conclude with Pascal, “Only then will most people will [sic] sit through any kind of substantial presentation of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity. Now Pascal says to ‘show that it is [true].’ If they have not been brought through stage 1 (being disarmed and surprised by the lives and speech of believers) and stage 2 (seeing the great and attractive promises of God in Christ), their eyes will simply glaze over if you begin talking about ‘the evidence for the resurrection.’”

What you read in that article is a simple, clear representation of rationalistic apologetics—one of three common approaches. This is why he wrote his well-known book Reason for God where he seeks to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith.

I wish to give a simple push-back against what he writes for those who read my blog to consider.  What is described here is simply a form of apologetics known as rationalistic apologetical methodology. It is very popular in the Church and people like Keller is one key reason for it. Who doesn’t want to be articulate and gracious in their interactions with non-Christians for the sake of the gospel? I sure do and it is something we encourage at my church.

But there is a key quibble in the article that is easy to miss but helps shows the theological  presuppositions that drive this argument of Keller’s. “One then will most people will [sic] sit through any kind of substantial presentation [of the gospel].” This is classic “pre-evangelism” and it argues that before a person can really ever hear or respond to the gospel truths and demands that they must be softened up. This is done through our approach and through how they perceive our lifestyles and choices. We are to make the gospel attractive to them.

So what is the problem? At the core of the rationalists argument is the presumption that people can be softened to the gospel and to Christ through the rationalist’s demeanor and argumentation.

This is fine for those who are Arminian in their theology but it is a blatant contradiction to those who hold to a more Calvinistic position (I used those two terms in their popular sense). And it is here that Keller, and many other fine men and women, go astray in my opinion. As one who holds to a form of presuppositionalistic apologetics I see that the fatal flaws in Keller’s position (rationalism) to be many. Here are some key points:

First, it fails to make the key distinction between truth and facts. Facts are not the same as truth in that it is different qualitatively. Truth is ultimately found not something that is neutral and self-existing. Rather, it is found in Jesus Christ who is defined as “the truth” (John 14:6). Without Jesus Christ one cannot truly know truth, only facts. It is much like apart from Jesus Christ one cannot have true life, for in Him alone is life (Colossians 3:4).

Second, it fails to appreciate the fulness of the effects of sin upon the faculties of humanity. We are not merely weakened by sin but rather we are utterly dominated by it in every sense without Jesus Christ. We are slaves to it and as a result we are dead in our sins. We cannot and will not respond to God in a proper manner for we do not have the ability to do so. We walk and live under the power of Satan (see Romans 5:8-10; 6:20a; 8:5-7; Ephesians 2:1-3).

Third, it fails to grasp how apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit mankind is in a state of suppressing the truth rather than considering it carefully and properly. Romans 1:18ff makes this point bluntly and forcefully. The truth of God’s existence is seen clearly in both creation and without our own hearts to the point that we are without excuse. Yet, because of the dominating power of sin, our minds and wills actively suppress it.

So, though I appreciate the article of Keller’s, ultimately it falls short because it implies that if we conduct ourselves in such and such a manner then the person shall somehow break himself free from the constraints that sin has upon him and be able to objectively consider the claims and glory of the gospel. Nothing can be further from the truth. What every Christian must understand is how utterly reliant they are upon the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit to bring an active rebel to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

UPDATED*** made some editorial changes.

Psalm 2 and Atheism

 Why are the nations in an uproar And the peoples devising a vain thing?
 The kings of the earth take their stand And the rulers take counsel together Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart And cast away their cords from us!” He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger And terrify them in His fury, saying, “But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. ‘You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.'” Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the LORD with reverence And rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! 

A short Psalm that has helpful observations for the Christian when dealing with a belligerent atheist.  I won’t make this a long post that is painful to read, rather, I will try to make some simple points that help guide a Christian in answering someone who is actively antagonistic to the claims of Jesus Christ.

  1. The hate and the vitriol is simply because there is the perception that God binds them and restricts them and they hate him for it.  It is true, He does and they know it.  If they follow Jesus they cannot follow their own designs.  But they believe that their path brings freedom when all it really does is wrap them tightly in the fetters of rebellion.  The funny thing about atheism is that they believe there is no God and yet invest massive quantities of emotion and effort to try to prove it.  If he really doesn’t exist then at best they should shake their head in pity to the fool who does, much like we would to the one who believes the moon is made of green cheese.
  2. God is unimpressed and finds them mock-worthy.  He will speak in judgment and until he speaks there is no reason to spend a lot of time trying to defend him.  The Christian proclaims a gospel that is foolishness and weakness, therefore we do not stand amazed when it (and we) are called foolish and weak.
  3. God has established his King (Jesus).  He has granted him full authority over all things.  Even the atheist is under the dominion of Jesus.  But note that in his time he shall express that dominion in a terrifying manner.  They shall be broken and shattered.
  4. Therefore, all who hear come to a point of decision: They fear the Lord and worship him, or they don’t.  They worship Jesus as their Lord and their Master or they don’t.  One choice brings favor and the other anger.
  5. The one who chooses Jesus is in an enviable position, for Jesus shall recompense all for whom they love and whom they follow. 

The Reality of Suffering for The Faith

I am teaching through the books of 1 and 2 Timothy at my church and one point is constantly being made–the Christian life involves persecution and suffering.  There is no way around it and there is no way to truly avoid it and stay faithful to the faith.  I have told my congregation over the last few weeks that they must understand that now is the time to store up for themselves the wisdom of the Lord so that when that time comes to suffer they are prepared in heart and soul to do so.

I am not convinced that everyone in my church believes this, but I am convinced that it is true nonetheless.  Well, an important article was written that shows how close the time of persecution is for American Christians.  It starts with the military, here is a key snippet:

The statement, released to Fox News, follows a Breitbart News report on Obama administration Pentagon appointees meeting with anti-Christian extremist Mikey Weinstein to develop court-martial procedures to punish Christians in the military who express or share their faith.

(From our earlier report: Weinstein is the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and says Christians–including chaplains–sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the military are guilty of “treason,” and of committing an act of “spiritual rape” as serious a crime as “sexual assault.” He also asserted that Christians sharing their faith in the military are “enemies of the Constitution.”)

Being convicted in a court martial means that a soldier has committed a crime under federal military law. Punishment for a court martial can include imprisonment and being dishonorably discharged from the military.

Read the rest here.

I leave you with the words of Paul to Timothy which we have been considering for several weeks (emphasis mine):

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel,
for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal;
but the word of God is not imprisoned. 
For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen,
so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.
It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us
(2Timothy 2:8-12 NASB)

What Newbies Want in A Sermon—And Many Oldies

A bit of an explanation here first.  I read this article by a young church planter who had followed the advice and paradigm regarding the place and content of preaching in the church, specifically one that is a plant.  What stood out to me was how he learned that the new believer was not happy about the reduced sermon format that limited content and limited time.  The preacher is to be a trained speaker who dazzles and draws his listeners into the story of the gospel.  Here is how he put it:

. . . nobody wants to bore saints or seekers when talking about something as exquisite as the gospel.  The intent was to call proclaimers to be humble, excellent workers who would never besmirch the Good News by bad delivery.  The problem, though, lay in the basic, internal posture we were asked to adopt when bringing the Word to sinful, human listeners: deferential apology.  As in, “I’m sorry I have to ruin the moment now, but this IS church, and we DO have to mention sin, hell, and the cross of Jesus from time to time.  This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you…”

The key is a good delivery of the good news and an apologetic demeanor when bringing up the bad news of the human condition.  Most pastors who have a love for those who are outside of the grace of God know this tension.  I remember seeing a person I knew was not a Christian come into our church for the very first time (or any church for that matter) and the sermon I was to preach was on the sovereignty of God in salvation.  Heavy on total depravity and heavy on sovereign grace.  But when you are preaching out of Romans 3 or Romans 9, that is what you have before yourself for the text.

What happens next in this man’s story though is telling.  He goes on to relate  some rather startling discoveries as his ministry took root.

About 4-5 years in, something happened that changed my faith in unadorned preaching and evangelism.  There were finally enough true converts in our congregation (God had sovereignly used our clumsy proclamation to win believers) that I could track the sources of feedback I received.  The recently lost-and-found WERE frustrated with me – but for cutting messages short, trimming content, and watching the clock!  Those who had demanded curt, topical homilies were cradle-to-grave types.  Denominational veterans claimed to be shielding newbies from discomfort, but the newcomers were clamoring for biblical depth and blunt confrontation.

The new Christian wanted to hear the Word.  A lot of it.  They wanted to be drawn into the thicker, denser parts of biblical, exegetical theology.  They wanted to watch and learn how to really look at the passage and see what God had revealed to them.  It was those who were raised in the church who wanted less.  Less content, less theology, less preaching, less everything.

In my experience as a pastor who took over the pulpit of a well-established church is that many older believers become jaded.  They have watched people come and go, and the same with the pastors who taught them.  Each comes with a plan and then eventually goes when it doesn’t work.  Perhaps they sat under many sermons that were long and shallow, which are always worse that those that are short and shallow.

For many (based off of conversations I have had) they realized that there was a real disconnect between the sermon and what the pastor and the church actually did.  Hypocrisy was the word of the day, or decade.  Others saw the pastor preach law, not grace and they felt the burden of the mill-stones being tied around their necks.  And finally, others could not walk away with any sense of why that sermon mattered.  There was never an attempt to connect the richness of the theology of the text to the richness of the Christian’s life.

What I have learned over the years is that true Christians love the Word, even when they don’t realize it.  I have taught seminary level theology classes to members of my church with faithful attendance and eager participation.  One woman told me after I taught Christology, Soteriology, and Hamartiology for over six months to her and about thirty others that she would frequently go home weeping as the impact of the verses and the theology sunk into her heart. I have watch old Christians who carry the battle scars of many in-house fights grin from ear to ear as they are stretched to see more of God.

Where am I going with all of this?  Just that every pastor, if he is to be a real pastor rather than a church grower, must be a man who preaches well, but preaches deeply as well.  He must be willing to draw the people, new and mature alike, into the deep parts of the Word.  He must be willing to stand beside them as they flounder about at times and cheer when they realize that by the Holy Spirit work they are able to even stand and flourish in the deep end.  He must not shy from the hard doctrines and he must open the whole Word of God to the people.  The new Christian wants it and needs it, the old Christian does too (even if some of them don’t know it), and those who don’t want it cannot be to whom a pastor preaches.

A Song without A Name

A long time ago I heard D. A. Carson say that pastors should be song and hymn writers.  I took that to heart and wrote a few, but I lost them all (probably for good reason) along the way.  While cleaning out my desk the other day I came across one that I actually still like even though I really have no clue how to write a song.  Regardless, I present to you my song without a name.

Here we stand and can go no further.
We see a world so filled with death.
They cry aloud and do not know it;
Oh, our Father, empower our tongues!
Here we stand and can go no further.
we watch this sphere sink down in sin.
They stumble and fall by sin’s great weight;
Oh, sweet Jesus, may we speak of you!
Here we stand and can go no further.
We see these people walk as dead.
they have no life nor will to savor;
Oh, great Spirit, to them grant new life.


Pray my brothers! Sing and shout!
Tell of the risen savior who is Lord of all!
Pray my sisters! Sing and shout!
Tell of the risen Savior, whose death brings us life!


The Basic Idea of Being Missional

Missional is a word that is thrown around a lot today in various parts of the Church.  It is popular to be called missional and it is also an invitation to get verbally smacked around by some well-meaning believers.  What it all means is subject to some debate, of which I have no interest getting into.

But, how do I understand it to mean?  It is simply the call by Christ to be on mission for His Name.  The message is the gospel and the means is by willfully developing relationships with unbelievers with the purpose of showing them an authentic Christian who weaves the message of the gospel into his speech.  The goal is to make genuine friends with the hope that God might bring them to Himself.  But even if they never come to Christ they remain friends.  In other words, this not like the old Amway gatherings where a neighbor invites you to a part only to turn it into a sales pitch.

Some will simply say that this is being “evangelistic.”  If you are one of these, then fine.  But I have found that many people will speak much of evangelism and yet never really get around to doing it.  They are all for evangelism and are ready to do it when the opportunity arises, but it never seems to do so.  And when I have examined the reasons why, a common point comes into focus for me–they don’t know any unbelievers.  Maybe an aunt or mother, vaguely the neighbor or co-worker; but when it comes right down to it, they simply have little or no interaction with unbelievers.  Even more sad is that they have little desire to be with them and have worked overtime in trying to keep their families shielded from their influence.

This is where this term, missional, comes into play.  It is that simple application of Mark 16 and Acts 1 where our Lord made it clear that the gospel was to go out into all the world and be preached.  This was never seen as a work of the “few” but of the “many.”  It is all of our responsibility.  And it is, in many instances, only going to be done as we seek to be friends with unbelievers.  I remember how Jim Odens put it when he was at our church a few years back.  He told us that we are to be purposeful in making friends with unbelievers with the goal that we might proclaim all the excellencies of God to them through word and deed.

All of this is simply an introduction to an excellent post by a seminary student down at Southern Seminary in Kentucky name Timmy Brister. Here is a bit of a taste of his article:

“Everyday I go into work, I want to feel the thrust that I am being sent into this world for the sake of the gospel and the glory of His name. I want to know who God is sending me to, and I want to be ready to listen before I speak, love before I lead, and pray before I preach. I want their world and their lives to be radically impacted by the power of the gospel, and that this power often comes in the form of a seed – a seed that must be watered, cultivated, and spread always and everywhere as a farmer expecting to have a great crop.”

I recommend the post to you and trust that it might encourage each who read this to renew their efforts to break out of any rut they are in and seek new relationships.  If this means meeting one less time with a Christian for the sake of getting to know a non-Christian, then do it.  But make sure you do it.

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