Friday, December 21, 2007

Terry Virgo at the FIEC

The invitation by FIEC Council to Terry Virgo to address them in January has caused great surprise and not a little consternation to some. I am a cessationist – that is, I believe that some of the miraculous gifts of the New Testament era were only for that era alone. Nonetheless, having met Terry himself and talked at some length to him, I’ve enthusiastically supported that invitation. Here’s why.

Firstly, Terry is an evangelical; that’s not a surprise, but it needs to be said. Terry Virgo could (and would) enthusiastically sign the FIEC basis of faith. Like me, he’d want to say ‘That’s not all I believe; but yes, I believe that.’ There’d be no hesitation, no ‘crossed fingers’, no mental reservations. I know some people are not happy that the FIEC has never excluded charismatic evangelicals – but, whether they like it or not, it never has.

Secondly, Terry has taken a strong stand on penal substitutionary atonement. Since Steve Chalke and Tom Wright, that has become a hot issue in some ‘evangelical’ quarters; but it is the foundation and bedrock of our faith. If Christ were not punished by the Father for my sins in my place, then I must one day bear that punishment myself and the gospel has no good news for me. Terry has responded to the new liberalism with the same appalled horror, and the same strong convictions, that we share. That is why, I suspect, he has recently been invited onto the Council of UCCF, and why he is a major speaker (along with John Piper and Don Carson) at next year’s ‘New Word Alive’ conference. Sometimes, we just have to draw lines in the sand; and we need to be careful where we draw them.

Thirdly, he is fine preacher, and leader of one of the UK’s most successful church-planting groups. The only New Frontiers church I have visited certainly preaches the gospel; I’ve no reason to assume that the others do not. Yes, they will do some things that I would disagree with; but so do some FIEC churches! If FIEC wants to church plant to the nation, it’s worth at least asking if there’s anything we can learn from New Frontiers? How, for example, do they do their training? What areas do they target and why? What ongoing support do they give to the church planters? If we don’t agree with the answers we hear, we can ignore them. But if we do, we can learn.

Fourth, Greg Haslam, a pastor from a New Frontiers Church, has recently become pastor of one of the FIEC’s most famous historic churches, Westminster Chapel, London. Surely a greater understanding of one another would be a good thing?

‘All that may be true,’ says someone, ‘But what about apostles? Doesn’t New Frontiers claim that Terry Virgo is an apostle?’ Yes, they do. But they may not mean by that what you think they do – and surely Christian integrity means we should try to understand what someone says before we criticise? As I understand what they are saying, they argue that ‘apostle’ has at least three references in the New Testament. It is used of the Lord Jesus in Hebrews 3:1. It is used often of the Twelve, a unique original group (e.g. Mark 3:14). Terry’s own website says of them ‘…the original Twelve called by Jesus were obviously unique’. I believe that too! But thirdly, they point out that the word is sometimes used of others, too – Barnabas, for example (Acts 14:14). They see this as a ‘type 3 apostle’, and believe it is what is referred to in Ephesians 4:11 – ‘apostles of the churches’ rather than ‘apostles of Christ’. So the full quote from Terry’s website reads ‘Although the original Twelve called by Jesus were obviously unique, the ascended Christ, as described in Ephesians 4, continues to give to His church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.’ I may think they are wrong – I do! But it is hardly heresy, and it is either dishonest or ignorant of us when we say ‘Terry Virgo thinks he’s an apostle like Peter.’ If we were more honest and said ‘Terry Virgo thinks he’s an apostle like Barnabas’ it would be more accurate and – surely? – less offensive.

I recognise that some of our brethren feel that they and their churches have been hurt by New Frontiers. We have to realise that struggling churches are often keen to blame somebody else ! But if there is more to it than that, surely that’s a reason to open dialogue? Isn’t forgiveness and reconciliation between brothers an important part of what we believe and strive for?

I look forward to meeting Terry again, and to hearing what he has to say. I hope you will pray for our session together, that great good may come out of it for Jesus our King.

Gary Benfold
December 2007

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eldership, the preacher, and presuppositions

Preaching recently through Titus, I was teaching (again) on the role of elders, as set out in the New Testament. That led to the comment that I was focusing too much on their teaching role and not nearly enough on their pastoral role. It gave me opportunity to set out in some detail what I believe preachers ought to do – here it is. I began by asking ‘Is that criticism right?’

It’s a good question. Perhaps I can best try and answer it by giving you a little insight into what the preacher’s job is. He starts with the belief that the Bible is God’s word: God has spoken, and he has spoken in his word. Everything the Bible says is true; but not everything we think the Bible says is true. Only what it really does say. And everything the Bible says is binding on us – though we must understand it properly, or else we will find ourselves trying to make sacrifices at a Temple in Jerusalem that hasn’t been there since AD70.

Not only that: the Bible is not only true in everything it says, it also tells us everything we need to know for our walk with God; how we are to conduct our personal lives, what kind of churches we should be, what baptism is, what the role of ministers and deacons and church members should be – all of it. We don’t need outside sources – especially tradition, otherwise known as ‘the way it’s always been done’; the Bible is true, and it is authoritative, and it is sufficient. And the preacher’s job is to take that word as it is, explain its meaning, apply it to the people, and motivate them to live by it.

And all that would be straightforward, were it not for the blinkers we all wear. I mean by that the assumptions – the presuppositions – that we bring to the text. Let me give you a couple of examples.

‘You are Peter, (the rock), and on this rock I will build my church.’ The Roman Catholic assumes that that text teaches that the Pope is the supreme leader of the Christian church. Ask a knowledgeable Catholic why he believes the RC church is the true church, and he’ll quote for you Matthew 16:18. But it’s an assumption. If you know your Bible and your history, you can argue for ages and make little progress. You can point out that Jesus used two different words for ‘rock’; he said ‘You are Petros and on petra I will build my church’ – and ask whether it’s not at least possible that Jesus meant ‘They call you the Rock, but it’s on a different kind of rock that I’m going to build my church.’ You can point out that there’s no evidence in the New Testament at all that Peter had any primacy over the other apostles. You can point out that the Roman Catholic church believes that Peter was bishop in Rome at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans – yet Paul names at least 29 people that he sends greetings to, and none of them is Peter. At the very least, that would be astonishing bad manners from one apostle to the chief apostle – isn’t it at least possible that Peter wasn’t in Rome at that point – and in fact was never church leader in Rome? No; Peter was bishop of Rome and the church is built on him. So you can ask: even if all of that were true, where does the text say anything about any of Peter’s successors? If Peter was the leader of the apostles; if he was bishop in Rome; where is there any suggestion that Peter’s successors were to be leaders of the world-wide church? But no: Matthew 16:18 tells them that the Pope is supreme.

It’s not that they’re being deliberately awkward: it’s the power of presuppositions. Breaking them down usually takes a great deal of time and patience.

It isn’t only Catholics, of course. I’ve known some Anglicans, who used the AV, insist that their church is more Biblical than the Free Churches because the Anglican church has bishops. Every time they read the passages about Bishops, they thought: ‘That’s right. We’ve got them.’ Even though the texts that mention bishops – episcopoi, overseers – make it clear that each congregation has at least one and probably more than one, so they’re not what Anglican mean by bishops at all – they couldn’t see it. Their presuppositions blinded them to what the text actually said.

And it isn’t just them, either. It’s us, too. We all have presuppositions. It’s really easy to spot other people’s, and fiendishly difficult to spot our own. But the preacher has to be careful: he comes to the text with presuppositions, and he preaches on that text to the congregation and asks them to believe it is the word of God. And Scripture is; but his presuppositions are not. So what’s he going to do?

He’s going to work at it. He’s going to know that he’s not infallible; he’s going to read and read the passage he’s preaching on and any other that bears on the issue. He’s going to consult the original languages if he can; certainly he’s going to consult the commentaries. He’s going to talk regularly and often to other preachers – not just those who agree with him, but those who are Anglicans if he’s Free Church, and vice-versa. He’s going to debate these things; he’s going to do everything he can to expose his own presuppositions – to himself! Sometimes, he’s going to get into the pulpit and say ‘you know when I said such-and-such? I was wrong – here’s how I know, and here’s what I should have said.’ And he’s not going to feel threatened by that, or that he’s making himself look stupid: what he’s doing is modelling his subjection to the word of God, and that’s likely to be as valuable as his preaching.

Presuppositions are one reason wise churches set men aside to teach; they don’t just use anyone who is prepared to devote whatever spare time he can find to ministering the word. Paul told Timothy to ‘diligently labour… to divide the word of truth rightly.’ Diligently labour – it’s hard work, time-consuming work and it has to be done, otherwise the preacher will misuse Scripture, misguide others, and answer for it before a very strict God on the day of judgement: ‘Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, because you know we who teach will be judged more strictly.’ Topical sermons – ‘Four steps to a successful prayer life’ or ‘Five ways to stay happy though married’ can be produced very quickly; they’re the sermon equivalent of a TV dinner – taken from the freezer, popped in the microwave and served piping hot, but still a plastic substitute for the real thing. Real food takes longer; real sermons take work.

But wait a minute; hearers, not just preachers, have their presuppositions too. They may well judge a sermon or a preacher not on the basis of whether it or he deals faithfully with what the text says; they may judge on the basis of whether their own presuppositions have been agreed with.

Take this matter of elders. We all know some elders. Maybe you like them, and value what they did – naturally, you’re going to assume that they’re the model for eldership. When you hear eldership preached on, you’re going to look for your friends to be described. Or maybe you don’t like the elders you know, and don’t appreciate their work. You assume they’re wrong – and therefore you expect a sermon on eldership to criticise them and point out their shortcomings. If it doesn’t, it’s all too easy to assume the preacher has got it wrong.

What I’m doing as we look at this subject is simple: I’m trying to see what the text says, without letting my presuppositions – or yours – get in the way. If I’m missing something, it ought to be easy to show me: ‘Gary, you didn’t deal with that phrase in the text. Aren’t you missing something important?’ But any statement like ‘I think elders ought to do this…’ has to be backed up with Scripture.

Let me hone in even further. For a moment, let’s ask: what do the Scriptures say Christians should do? We could list a thousand things: but it would include things like this. Who comforts the bereaved? The ‘ordinary’ (so-called) member of the congregation – 1 Thessalonians 4:18. Who visits the sick? The ordinary Christian: (see Matthew 25:35-36 and James 1:27) Who bears the burdens of those who are hurting? The ordinary Christian ‘Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,’ (Galatians 6.2).

Doesn’t the elder do those things? Of course he does – he’s a Christian too! But those things are things he shares with everyone else in the church; they’re things he does because he’s a Christian, not because he’s an elder. The things that he does by virtue of his being set aside to the eldership focus around teaching: he is the pastor/teacher (Ephesians 4.11) – and the main focus of his teaching, according to that verse, is to get everybody else out doing the work of the ministry.

Now, that’s a longer introduction than some sermons, but it is important.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Alistair Begg on Friday (nearly)
Back much later than I anticpated, we're still looking at Begg's words to preachers. I hope that this one helps establish the blogging habit!

3. The story-teller. This man has convinced himself that since everyone loves a good story and since people tend to be less inclined to follow the exposition of the Bible, he will develop his gift of storytelling to the neglect of the hard work of Biblical exposition…

4. The entertainer. Too often these days one is invited to preach with no thought given to the preacher being part of the worshipping throng. Instead he is invited to relax ‘backstage’ until it is time for him to ‘do his thing’. .. I do question the rightness of such a procedure…. There is a marked difference in perspective between the joyful solemnity I recall in the vestry of Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, in the final moments before it was time to mount the pulpit steps and the ‘go get ‘em’ camaraderie in many churches today, the latter being more like a locker room sixty seconds before the kickoff.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Alistair Begg on Friday

Like John MacArthur, Alistair Begg is a fine and faithful preacher. A Scot now ministering in the US, Alistair is a particular help, in my opinion, to British preachers. His Scottish reformed heritage is very clear, while his preaching is both contemporary and colourful. There are few men as faithful to Scripture who are as consistently listenable! Daily broadcasts of Alistair's ministry from the Truth for Life radio program can be found here , while Alistair giving an update on his health (he has recently been treated for prostate cancer) can be heard here.

This first extract is from his little booklet 'Preaching for God's glory' - and I'll be back next Friday with a continuance of this.

In our day the expositor of Scripture has been eclipsed by a variety of sad substitutions. We will consider a few.

1. The cheerleader. This well-meaning fellow has a peculiar need to be liked and accepted. Whatever the context of a particular message, he is going to be positively inspirational. A good Sunday for him is one where his people laugh a lot, are affirmed and affirming, and go away more self-assured than when they arrived. Whether they were confronted by the truth of God’s Word or humbled by God’s presence is largely lost sight of in a quest for wholeness that replaces a concern about holiness. Such an individual often leaves the teaching of the Bible to small groups or home studies. The preacher’s task, he feels, is to ‘pump them up’ and prepare them for the daunting week that awaits them as soon as they leave the building.

Sadly, in such a case the sheep leave stirred but without being strengthened, and when the sugar fix provided by the mil-shake sermon has worn off, those with any kind of spiritual appetite wander off in search of more substantial food for their souls. The proper work of the preacher is thus not done.

2. The conjuror. When we hear the congregation declaring ‘Wasn’t it amazing what he got out of that?’ we should not immediately assume that the news is good. When the preacher refuses to do the hard work of discovering the actual meaning of the text in its context, and when he divorces discovery and application, just about anything can be conveyed – and often is!

Monday, June 04, 2007

MacArthur on Monday: When it’s time to go to war

From time to time I plan to include some quotes here from John MacArthur’s works; MacArthur is one of the doughtiest champions of truth in our day, as well as one of the most compelling. Read and enjoy!

Jude’s words stress the pressing urgency and the absolute necessity of the Truth War: ‘I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith’ (vs. 3). The expression ‘contend earnestly’ is translated from a strong Greek very epagonizomai, literally meaning ‘agonise against.’ The word describes an intensive, arduous, drawn-out fight. There is nothing passive, peaceful, or easy about it. Jude ‘exhorted’ them – meaning he urged and commanded them – to wage a mighty battle on behalf of the true faith.

Jude himself says he felt the necessity to write this command. He employs a verb that speaks of pressure. In other words, he sensed a strong, God-given compulsion to write these things. He was not writing them because he took some kind of perverse glee in being militant. He was not responding to a momentary whimsy or personal anger. This was critical, and since the writers of Scripture never wrote by human self-will, but only as they were moved by the Spirit of God (2 Peter 1:21), the extreme urgency of Jude reflects the sovereign influence of the Holy Spirit and therefore also the mind of Christ.

We thus have an urgent mandate from God Himself to do our part in the Truth War. The Holy Spirit, through the pen of Jude, is urging Christians to exercise caution, discernment, courage and the will to contend earnestly for the truth.

Notice what we are supposed to be fighting for. It is not anything petty, persona, mundane, or ego related. This warfare has a very narrow objective. What we are called to defend is no less than ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.’

Jude is speaking of apostolic doctrine (Acts 2:42) – objective Christian truth – the faith, as delivered from Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit by the apostles to the church. As he says in verse 17: ‘Remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Notice: no one discovered or invented the Christian faith. It was delivered to us. It was not as if someone mystically ascended into the transcendental realm and drew down an understanding of the truth. We don’t need an enlightened guru to open the mysteries of the faith for us (cf. 1 John 2:27). The truth was entrusted by God to the whole church – intact and ‘once for all.’ It came by revelation, through the teaching of the apostles as preserved for us in Scripture. Jude speaks of ‘the faith’ as a complete body of truth already delivered – so there is no need to seek additional revelation or to embellish the substance of ‘the faith’ in any way. Our task is simply to interpret, understand, publish, and defend the truth God has once and for all delivered to the church.
(From ‘The Truth War’ by John MacArthur, pages 74/75)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

I'm hoping - really hoping - to do some serious blogging in the near future, with some input from various worthies. While I get that underway, here's a chapter from 'Reach out for him' - an evangelistic booklet by me, available from Day One.

Will there be a judgement?
‘… he has set a day when he will judge the world by the man he has appointed…’ (Acts 17.31)

When many people think of God, they think of a rather kindly old gentleman who could never be angry. The truth, though, is both better and worse than that!

It is better, because God’s love is greater than we could ever have guessed – great enough that he sent his Son, Jesus, to die in our place. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’[i]

It is worse, though, because God’s holiness is so great that we needed him to send his Son. Let me explain.

While we know we are not perfect, we do not really think our imperfections matter very much. But the Bible calls them sin, and insists that sin is so serious God must judge it: ‘the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.’[ii] Sin is serious enough to bring God’s wrath. The place where God’s wrath is felt most painfully – and eternally – is hell.

It surprises many people to discover that Jesus spoke a great deal about hell. Many of the common descriptions of hell – a place of torment,[iii] a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth,[iv] a place of outer darkness[v] – actually come from Jesus himself. He knew he needed to warn us all how serious our sin is, and the imagery he uses is terrifying.

In fact, Jesus also told us that he would be the Judge: in the end, it is up to him who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.[vi] Judgement is a fearsome thing, for hell is real and we have all sinned.[vii] Happily, heaven is real, too – and forgiveness is possible for us all because Jesus died. Jesus said ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’[viii]

[i] John 3:16
[ii] Romans 1:18
[iii] Luke 16:23
[iv] Matthew 8:12
[v] Also Matthew 8:12 – this familiar phrase is from the Authorised Version.
[vi] Matthew 25:32
[vii] Romans 3:23
[viii] Matthew 16:28