Friday, August 28, 2009

Spiritual gifts-- some thoughts

I’ve had a few recent conversations on spiritual gifts, and I thought I would offer some thoughts.

I don’t claim to represent the views of the PCA on this, although to the best of my knowledge my views are not out of accord with the PCA. (The predominant view of PCA pastors on spiritual gifts, especially on the apostolic or “sign” gifts,
can be found in this Pastoral Letter, which is a good summary.)

  • I am a “Cessationist” when it comes to the apostolic or “sign” gifts. That is, I believe that they have “ceased” to manifest. These were, from everything I can tell from Scripture, gifts given to evidence the presence of the Holy Spirit in the churches, primarily so that New Testament-era believers could discern when the teaching they were receiving was orthodox or not. Two things convince me that such signs are no longer necessary: first, that we have the Bible-- and therefore we have a different, and better, measure of orthodoxy; second, that we have the completed Bible-- which means that ongoing revelation (which appears to have been the immediate content of the manifestation of these gifts) is unnecessary and, in fact, contrary to our views of Scripture. Also, I don’t hold that against others-- I’ve had good friends who have believed in the continuation of the apostolic gifts, and it hasn’t been reason to break fellowship.
  • I expect that the exercise of spiritual gifts is to be done in a biblical manner. One of my professors from seminary mentioned in class once (in an appropriate context) that he was not a Cessationist, but that he looked for, not the gifts of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit as evidence that someone is a believer. This view comes out of a right understanding of what Scripture-- and especially the New Testament-- says regarding how we might be confident in someone’s faith. It also happens to fly in the face of the practice of many, who claim that someone who has not evidenced one or more certain gifts (and they are always the apostolic or “sign” gifts) must not have the Holy Spirit present in their lives. Not surprisingly, there are other biblical manners by which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are prescribed to be exercised, which are ignored by many who engage in their practice. For example, 1 Corinthians 14 clearly requires that, in the case of speaking in tongues, an interpreter must be present-- and if one is not present, then the speaker should keep quiet. It also stipulates that, at most, two or three people should offer prophecy, and not more; whereas, I have known of times when dozens of people have claimed to have prophecies in some Charismatic churches. As I mentioned above, I don’t have a strong conscience about other Christians’ belief in the continuation of these gifts; my problem is with the unbiblical exercise of them.
  • I believe that, in general, it is helpful to consider spiritual gifts. For a while in the 80s and 90s, you couldn’t swing a dead skunk without knocking someone’s “spiritual gift inventory” off of a table-- there was great fervor for spiritual gifts, and frequently what seemed to me to be an over-emphasis on them. In our typical “all-or-nothing” way, many Christians summarily rejected spiritual gifts as unimportant, mainly out of reaction to the zeal. I don’t think either is appropriate; it seems clear from Scripture that there are spiritual gifts that are present in the lives of believers, and therefore it seems right that we should investigate and consider our spiritual giftedness-- but not in isolation or to the exclusion of other aspects of how God has made us. There is nothing wrong with completing a “spiritual gift inventory” and learning more about your spiritual gifts. In fact, we have some information about these in the Resources section of the HWPC website.
  • I think that spiritual gifts are connected to “natural” gifts. It seems to me that what it means for someone to receive a spiritual giftedness in a certain way simply means that they already had some natural talent, ability, or giftedness that was "sanctified" in their conversion for spiritual usefulness. There are plenty of people who are gifted teachers, for example, who are not believers; when they get converted, however, the Spirit appropriates their natural talents for teaching for Kingdom-usefulness. I don't believe that, ordinarily, one should expect his/her spiritual gifts to be altogether different from something that they already had some capacity for. I've never known it to be the case, for example, that someone who stammered and stuttered, and who was terrified to the point of hyperventilating to stand before a crowd, upon conversion suddenly becomes a preacher. If it has happened, then it is extraordinary, not ordinary. (Before you tell me that John Piper was afraid to speak, remember that he was already converted long before he overcame that fear.) This also means that there is spiritual gifting that includes more than simply what is listed in the New Testament letters, because there are areas of natural giftedness beyond these areas. For example, one spiritual gift inventory I saw listed "music" as a spiritual gift-- appropriately corresponding to the obvious natural abilities that some have (though not others) for musical skills. I think this is right, even though there is no mention of music at all in Paul's lists.
  • I have found that investigations of spiritual gifts are helpful to "connect the dots" for some. Someone recently asked me why spiritual gift inventories are valuable, especially if they are simply extensions, if you will, of natural gifts. In my experience, there are two ways. First, someone may not immediately or intuitively recognize how their natural talents and abilities are useful for Kingdom purposes; for whatever reason, they may have a misunderstanding that some interest, ability, passion, or talent that they have is not holy and profitable for Christ's service. A spiritual gift inventory may open their eyes to the contrary, and help them see how their unique giftedness fits into Christ's transforming work. Secondly, Christians often affect a self-effacing denial of their own value, believing that it is the path to humility; consequently, they begin to believe that they are worth little, and eventually their identities as children of the living God are squelched by this false view. A spiritual gift inventory can counteract this by directly exposing the aspects of a person's character and being that are useful and valuable to God.
  • I am convinced that spiritual gifts are just a part of who we are. One of the results of the enthusiasm toward the spiritual gifts craze of recent years was that some began to understand their identity in Christ primarily by way of their spiritual giftedness. This had two consequences, both negative. It suggested a hierarchy in worth, because some people obviously had more spiritual gifts than others; thus, some became envious of others' gifts, or simply became depressed because they weren't all that. Also, it denied the many other aspects of who someone is, and how Christ might transform them into His image; this even, at times, had the unfortunate result of creating large "blind-spots" in someone's spiritual growth, because the focus was so much on the spiritual gifts. God has made us as complex creatures, and the more we might know about ourselves, the better. In my experience, there is wisdom to be gained from considering, not only spiritual gifts, but also temperament, communication style, natural talents and abilities, leadership style, key life experiences, major influences, and even passions and dreams. (A good book to look at these comprehensively, by the way, is Aubrey Malphurs's Maximizing Your Effectiveness: How to Discover and Develop Your Divine Design.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Identity in Christ, part 2

As I said in my last post on this subject, I’ve started a study with some people in our congregation about our identity in Christ.

Read Part 1

Here is part two of the study; as you can see, we’re moving through Scripture in order; we will skip ahead after a while-- the study isn’t going to go chapter by chapter through the whole Bible! (Though that would be a good, and quite thorough, study.)

Genesis 2

Read Genesis chapter 2, then consider the following questions:
  1. Verse 18 is the first time in creation when God says that something is NOT good. What is NOT good in this "pre-fallen" creation? What is God's solution to that which is NOT good? What does this verse tell us about our built-in needs for relationships?
  2. Verses 19 and 20 describe Adam's search for a companion in creation. As wonderful as animals are, do you think that they can be adequate companions for people-- that they can offer "enough" companionship? Do you think that these verses support your thoughts on that? In light of these two verses (and what is to come next), do you think it is fair to say that there is nothing in all of creation, apart from God and other people, that can satisfy our built-in needs for relationships?
  3. Verses 21-24 describe the creation of woman, who God created as the perfect companion to the man. With an understanding (from verses 18-20) that all of mankind-- even before sin and the fall-- had and have a built-in need for relationships, how do you think we should understand marriage in light of verses 21-24?
  4. Verse 25 gives us a picture of the intimacy and vulnerable nature of this first marriage. In what ways is that kind of intimacy missing in the relationships that you have? How is it present in your marriage? How is it missing in your marriage?
  5. Genesis 1 and 2 give us two key ideas about who we are: we bear the image of God, and we have a built-in need for relationships. Are these two related? Think about the way that we speak of God as "Trinity" and that there are three persons of that Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Does God exist in a sort of community? Do you think that our need for relationships-- especially a relationship with God-- is a part of the way that we bear God's image?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Our Identity in Christ, part 1

Last week, I started a study with a couple I’ve been meeting with. Among other things, we are discussing our identity in Christ, and how that identity is our dignity and confidence, our assurance and esteem.

Lots of folks struggle with many different issues that, it seems to me, have their roots in a misunderstanding of this. So I’m starting this study of portions of Scripture with this couple-- and also posting the discussion questions here-- in order to address this great need. Here is part one.

Genesis 1

Read Genesis chapter 1, then consider the following questions:
  1. How does God describe what He has made at the end of each day? How does He describe the whole creation at the end of chapter 1? What does this teach us about creation?
  2. How was man made? What he made along with everything else, or separately? Is mankind just another part of creation, or are we distinct?
  3. Verses 26 and 27 speak very specifically about mankind being created "in the image of God." (This is an idea that we will come back to frequently.) What do you think this says about the dignity that is given to mankind?
  4. Verse 28 tells of God's command to man to be fruitful, to subdue the earth, and to rule over the creatures. Were these commands given to man because of his sin? (Remember, the "fall" of man doesn't happen until Genesis 3.) If not, what do you think this suggests about the nature of work, and whether work is valuable to God? Do you think this verse suggests that man was made to work, and that work is part of man's image-bearing?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Books for May, June, July 2009

I know, I’ve been pretty inconsistent about this...

Here’s what I’ve been reading in recent months:
  • William the Baptist by James M. Chaney (re-read). Actually, I’ve not only been reading this, but editing/updating it. This is a great book-- one of the best, in my opinion-- about baptism and the Reformed view of it. I cannot recommend it more highly. (10)
  • The Pastor As Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes. This book is excellent. I’m reading through it with a friend, but I went ahead and read the whole thing. Barnes’ take on the pastoral ministry-- and how we might approach it-- is extremely helpful. (10)
  • Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship by Hughes Oliphant Old. This is a great workbook that helped me get a fuller and deeper grasp of the significance and place of the various prayers that occur throughout a worship service, as well as giving bountiful examples of each type. Another great resource. (10)
  • Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money by Christian Smith and Michael O. Emerson (with Patricia Snell). I’ve grown a bit cold on statistically-based books-- or at least on ones presented like this one, where the bulk of the content is the statistical data itself. Still, this is an interesting book, and it is worth getting simply for the opening chapter, in which the writers dream of what the church could do if we only gave a bit more. (7+)
  • What Is the Lord’s Supper? by Richard D. Phillips. This is one of those short, booklet-style books that is designed to offer a quick overview. It does that, and I suppose it does it acceptably-- certainly, it is far better than nothing. I found myself feeling shorted on every point, but that is a problem of format and length, not content (which was excellent). Low marks, therefore, are for the choice to make this booklet TOO short. (8)
  • The Living Church by Donald J. MacNair. Another great one. This is one of three in a series (the other two are The Birth, Care, and Feeding of the Local Church and The Growing Church) and it is rich. If you’re looking for good stuff on church health, look no further-- MacNair is the father of church health (or so says Harry Reeder, who knows a thing or two about the subject). (10)
  • The Empty Pew: Caring for Those Who Leave by Louis Tamminga. Good-- not great. There is good stuff to be mined here, but it is a bit too formulaic, and it was clearly written for the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) denomination-- nothing wrong with that, but it was so focused on that denomination’s polity that it was, at times, difficult to export. (8)
  • Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible by Jay Adams. Good book, examining a subject that is far too neglected theologically. I like Adams’ careful commitment to being scripturally-based in all of his conclusions, and he does some good exegetical work. It’s a bit dry at times, but not prohibitively so. (9)

Books I recently started but decided not to finish:
  • Lost and Found: the Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them by Ed Stetzer, with Richie Stanley and Jason Hayes.
  • Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart by Kenneth C. Haugk.
  • Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Prayer 11: A Prayer for today's worship

Almighty God, we pray for your blessing
on the church in this place.
Here may the faithful find salvation,
and the careless be awakened.
Here may the doubting find faith,
and the anxious be encouraged.
Here may the tempted find help,
and the sorrowful find comfort.
Here may the weary find rest,
and the strong be renewed.
Here may the aged find consolation
and the young be inspired;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.