Thursday, July 5, 2012

Gospel Centered Preaching and Dispensationalism

Why are dispensationalists often left out of the conversation?!!  Two years ago I went to the National ETS conference because I wanted to see an epic debate between John Piper and NT Wright over the biblical concept of justification.  I was a little disappointed when Piper was replaced by Schreiner, but I was still amped up to see NT Wright and he did not disappoint.  BUT . . . you know what I walked away thinking?  Where were the dispensational voices?  You had Wright and you had reformed voices, but no real dispensational thinkers.  Aren't they allowed to have an opinion?

It seems to me that the same type of prejudice is in the new gospel Centered preaching movement, made popular by the T4G conferences and the Gospel Coalition.  As a Progressive Dispensationalist, I think this movement represents an awesome move away from moralism and toward the gospel, but again it seems like many in the movement tend to diminish dispensationalists or try to push them out of the discussion.  Do reformed people have a corner on gospel centered preaching?  Is their way of articulating it consistent with dispensationalism and and/or a dispensational hermeneutic?  Here are my two cents, and you are getting exactly what you pay for!!

1.  What is the Gospel?

First of all, we need to address the question, "What is the Gospel?"  Is the gospel merely a belief in the penal substitutionary atonement?  Is the gospel just the doctrine of double imputation?  Is the gospel a belief in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ?  Or . . . is the gospel the entire story of what God is doing in history? Scot McKnight in King Jesus Gospel makes (in my opinion) a very helpful distinction between the gospel and the plan of salvation.  When we talk about the gospel we are often reductionistic and apply it only to the plan of salvation (Admit your sin, believe in the sacrifice of Christ, and confess him as Lord).  The gospel, however, is the story of what God is doing in the world.  He is seeking to re-establish his kingdom on earth and to redeem a people for himself.  As I have read gospel centered preachers' writings they tend to struggle with this idea.  They want to include the second coming in their gospel preaching, but the way they define gospel (double imputation) makes them have to jump through hoops in order to allow it.  If we broaden our definition of gospel to what God is doing in history, culminating in Jesus, it will help us to fit our preaching into the story of God's word rather than to impose the plan of salvation on every text.  Which leads us to our next question . . .  

2.  Is there continuity or discontinuity between the testaments?

This is a very complicated hermeneutical question.  I don't want to dive overly deep into it here; I just want to point out that there is a major difference in how reformation thinkers, traditional dispensationalists, and progressive dispensationalists view the relationship between the testaments.  Reformed thinkers tend to focus on the continuity between the two testaments, traditional dispensationalists tend to focus on the discontinuity, and the progressives tend to focus on both continuity and discontinuity.   Now, with the advent of thinkers like NT Wright, I think there is a more helpful way of articulating the relationship between the Testaments and that is the idea of story.  The gospel story binds the two testaments together.  The story of what God is doing in history, culminating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  This story is the good news! 

God created man in his image and made him a steward of his creation.  Man transgressed the one boundary that God put in place and mankind fell into sin, and because of that relational breach God cursed not only mankind but the entirety of creation.  God, however, did not give up on man.  He pursued him through covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New), culminating in Jesus who is the ultimate answer and fulfillment of those covenants.  Jesus, the eternal second person of the trinity, willingly became a man, lived a perfect life, called men to repentance, gave his own life as a sacrifice for sin, and rose again from the grave putting a nail in the coffin of sin, death, and the devil.  Then he ascended to heaven where he now reigns as king in the hearts of his people as he awaits the time when he will return to earth to establish his kingdom in its full form and judge the world, condemning unbelievers and rewarding his own.  This is the story of what God is doing in the world.  This story is the good news.

If this is the story of what God is doing, then there is continuity between the testaments because both testaments are part of God's one story, but there is also discontinuity because each testament was written by people who were fully invested in their own part of the story.  True gospel preaching then will recognize the part of the gospel story every event and author was a part of and then ask the question, "What does this text mean in its own part of the gospel story, and what does it mean to me in my part of the story?"  True gospel preaching should never impose my part of the story onto another text at least at the level of meaning (perhaps at the level of extrapolation).  Which leads us to perhaps the distinguishing hermeneutic that divides reformed brothers and sisters from their dispensational conterparts, the analogy of faith.

3.  The Analogy of Faith hermeneutic

Since reformed people see continuity between the testaments, many of them often feel free to impose later New Testament truth back onto Old Testament passages.  This can be helpful at times, but it all depends on how you phrase what you are doing.  Modern dispensationalism does not lead to this type of hermeneutic (Classic Dispensationalists and to an extent Revised Dispensationalists were prone to similar thinking, they just called it typology). 

I think I am going to have to give an example to explain what I mean.  Let's use the story of David and Goliath as an example.  Here is a good video from Matt Chandler, exemplifying how gospel centered advocates believe we should approach this Old Testament narrative when we preach.

If you followed the link, you will find that Matt believes that when we preach about David and Goliath, we should really preach about how Jesus slayed the giants of sin, death, and the devil.  That, to him, would be gospel-centered or Christ-centered preaching.  What I learned from this is that when reformed people say that Gospel Centered preaching will lead you away from dispensationalism, that is what they are referring to.  Dispensationalism will lead you away from a hermeneutic that allows you to read the story of Jesus back onto the story of David and Goliath.  Was the original intent behind the telling of story of David and Goliath to prefigure the work of Christ?  Of course not.  If we preach that as the intent of the passage, we are not exegeting the text, but imposing a foreign idea onto it.  Now, does that mean that we can't both find out the original intent of the story, preach that intent, AND focus on the gospel?  Of course not!.  

So, how should we preach the original intent AND focus on the gospel story at the same time.  First we have to discover the original intent.  I believe as you look at the book of 1 Samuel as a whole you will find that it is a mainly a contrast between two personalities, David and Saul.  David was a man of faith in God who depended on him for success.  Saul was a man of pride who depended on himself for his success.  These two personalities convene in a very telling way in the story of David and Goliath.  Saul will not fight Goliath, because he is afraid.  He looks at Goliath and his strength and he looks at himself and his lack thereof and makes the logical choice that fighting him would end in death.  This reaction is just part of who he is, a man dependent on himself.  David, on the other hand, is a man of faith.  He believes that God is active and wants to save his people, he is just waiting for a faith filled servant to use. 

The author was trying to hold David up as a model of faithfulness to God and his covenant.  He was in essence teaching through story that we should be like David and not like Saul.  If we want to be faithful to the text, our sermon should also focus on the faith of David.  In other words, if we interpret the text properly, it does lead to a moral.  Christ centered preaching (as enumerated by many reformed thinkers) tries to tell us that if we preach a moral, then it is somehow not Christ centered or gospel centered.  The Bible does, however, teach morals and ethics for God's people to live by.  Preaching a moral is not moralism, especially if the point of the text we are studying is to get across a moral.  Moralism is when we teach that God loves us more for following the moral, or loves us less if we don't.  The Bible is absolutely filled with morals.  I believe that we can both hold to a dispensational/progressive dispensational hermeneutic (not imposing NT theology on OT texts) and still be gospel centered when we preach them.  Gospel centered preaching allows me to preach a moral, but at the same time it does NOT allow me to just leave it at that.  Here is where you need to put the story of David and Goliath into the gospel story.  

Like David and Saul, we are fallen people and live in the midst of other fallen people.  That fallenness leads us to be afraid of the circumstances of life, like Saul.  We too have an option of how to react to those circumstances.  We can trust ourselves or we can trust in God.  Therefore, the proper way to preach this text is to call people to faith in God no matter the circumstances of life.  

We also need to understand that because we live in a different part of the story, that our application is going to need to be re-contextualized.  We do not live under the Mosaic covenant any more.  Under the law, faith and faithfulness to the covenant resulted in physical blessings, while unfaithfulness led to curses.  That is different between our situation and David and Saul's.  We cannot then preach that if we have enough faith in God, that he will enable us to slay all of our personal giants.  So, when we preach David and Goliath, we, like the author, should call people to have big faith in a big God who loves his people and wants what is best for them, while at the same time not promising the people that they can manipulate God by their faith.  If they just have enough faith, that God will do whatever they ask of him.

Which leads us back to our initial question.  Can people hold to a dispensational hermeneutic and still be gospel centered in their preaching?  Yes!!  If we focus on the story of the gospel and let it inform our preaching.  We don't just preach the moral, "Have faith!"  We also must preach the why.  Why should we have big faith in a big God?  Because that God loves us, pursues us, and ultimately sent his own son to free us from sin and death.  It is not moralism to understand that certain passages of Scripture teach morals.  It only becomes moralism when we at the same time preach that the goal of the Christian life is to be moral.  The goal of the Christian life is to have a relationship with God, and we can only do that when we see everything through the lens of the gospel.

So, when gospel centered preachers say that being gospel centered will lead them to be reformed, that really isn't the case.  Using the analogy of faith and reading the plan of salvation into the meaning of Old Testaments texts might, but that hermeneutic is not the only way to be gospel centered and reject moralism.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Is America the New Israel?

A few months ago a great man in my church suggested I read a book called "The Last Harbinger."  I asked him what it was about and he told me that I just needed to read it.  "It will tell you where we are headed as a country" he said.  Whenever someone from the church suggests I read something, I do.  It think it is my desire for their protection that drives me to do so.  I went on-line and I purchased the book.

What I found there both horrified me and taught me something very valuable about how some modern evangelicals look at America.  Let me start with a disclaimer.  I love America.  I am so glad that I was blessed to be born in this great nation.  Do not in any way take the rest of this post and me bashing on America.  I am not.

BUT . . .

What horrified me was that the author, Jonathan Cahn, teaches that America is the new Israel in God's plan.  He suggests that America is a distinctly Christian nation, qualitatively different than every other nation, except Israel.  I don't think so and I will explain why in a moment.  It did, however, help me understand those "America is a Christian nation" people a little better.  It helps me make sense of their constant complaint about prayer being taken out of schools or their propensity to be the morality police for the nation at large.  The book brings up a subject that we probably need to address in our churches.  Is America some great nation that God treats differently than every other secular nation on the surface of the earth or not?

Cahn compares the United States of America to the nation of Israel.  He says that they are the only two nations in history that were established with a covenant between the nation and God.  Then, he uses this link to apply prophecies made to ancient Israel to modern day America.  These links between ancient prophesy about the idolatry and decline of the Northern Kingdom and America's post 9-11 experience are clearly impressive, and I do think that we can learn something from the pattern of how God interacted with Israel, but I think there are some huge errors in logic and some very dangerous and wrong conclusions that we could draw by equating God's dealings with Israel to God's dealings with America.

First of all, God chose Israel. He picked out Abraham from every other man on the face of the planet, and he chose him.  He didn't choose him, because he was great, or because he was already worshiping him.  He just chose him, and made promises to him to make him the father of a great nation.  A nation through whom all other nations would be blessed.  God never chose America in this way.  God has a purpose for America; I firmly believe that.  America, however, is not a "chosen" nation in the way that Israel was a "chosen" nation.  God doesn't work in America in ways that are different from how he interacts with any other nation.

One of the ways that Cahn makes this connection is by pointing out that there has been a breach in the walls of America.  A trouble that has beset us that proves that God is judging us.  We were falling away from our job as being the light that draws people to God, so God sent planes into our buildings and killed thousands of people to get our attention on 9-11.  REALLY?  Sounds like a Pat Robertson soundbite to me.  Also, why is this tragedy the breach in our walls?  What about the civil war?  What about the Great Depression?  What about Pearl Harbor?  Why choose just this tragedy?  Also, are all tragedies sent by God to teach us lessons?  Surely the principle is true that we reap what we sow, but we need to be careful when we say why God allows something to happen, when we really aren't sure why.  Calling people to repentance in the face of tragedy is a good thing, but to stand on your soap box and say that these towers fell because America did this or does that is going beyond what we know.

Second, we are in a different part of God's story today.  In the Old Testament, God was pursuing his people through covenants.  Promises that he made to specific people.  These people were members of one nation, Israel.  Through the covenants God held Israel up as an example to all the other nations.  He wanted to draw other nations and people to him through their story.  That is why God chose a nation that wasn't that great, because he wanted people to look at them and see God.  Because of sin, however, Israel never did the job as they were intended to.  Therefore, when the time was right, God sent his son, Jesus.  Now, God's primary way of reaching people is not through a nation or a people, but through the church (1 Pet. 2:9; Rom. 11:17, 24; Phil. 3:3) with the message of Jesus on their lips.  The church is the center of God's plan in this part of the story, not one particular nation.

America is not a special chosen nation instituted by God to draw people to salvation in the same way that Israel was.  Has America had successful missionary efforts?  Of course!!  God's plan, though, is not to use America to reach the world, but to use his church.

I think this misunderstanding about America is common today.  I also think that this misconception can be dangerous.  These people firmly believe that until we get back to our roots as a nation that there is no hope for our country.  Our hope does not come from America; our hope comes from God.  God working through his church to reach the world.  Don't put your hope in America going back to a certain set of ethics or back to being a more "Christian" nation.  Also, this philosophy will lead you to try to reclaim culture and to Christianize America, rather to focus on transforming hearts with the power of the gospel one at a time.  Love your country.  Hope for the best, but remember that we are citizens of heaven first!  America is not the greatest good in the world, God is!!  He is our only hope!  The gospel is the only means of salvation.