“Happy Anniversary”

Yesterday was my anniversary.

Not my wedding anniversary (that’s in August).

No, this was the 12th anniversary of my very first Sunday as the pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church. Back in 1997, I’d been waiting for a call to pastor a church for over 16 months. Cornerstone had been working at calling a pastor for just about the same length of time. God saw fit to bring us both together. Fascinating is His sovereignty.

When Cornerstone was first without a pastor (back early in 1996), they put together a search committee to find their new pastor. It didn’t take them very long until they had a man they thought would work out. He came, he met, he interviewed & was interviewed, and he preached. He wasn’t called here. So, back to that proverbial drawing board. Another man was selected. As the weekend drew near for him to come & candidate, he called, saying he was withdrawing his name. Another setback. The search committee then committed themselves to seeking God’s face through prayer and asking Him to truly lead them along in this process. (I’m sure they’d prayed previously, but not as earnestly as now.)

The church plant I’d pastored in central Iowa had closed in July of ’96. (It’s a long story; maybe it’ll show up here sometime; maybe not.) The one other time I’d been in between churches, I thought the process would probably go quickly. It didn’t. Yet here I was, without a church and thinking that it might only take 3-6 months for a church to call me. It didn’t.

When CEFC first sent me a packet of information about their church, I read it and said, “Nope. No way would they want me and my doctrinal beliefs. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to want to pastor them.” Yet they persisted. The committee chair called me and talked to me at length. I asked a lot of questions of them and they of me. They really wanted a face-to-face interview and Ann said that we might as well go. So away we went. Following the interview with the search committee, Ann and I drove home to Iowa, talking all the way and both of us thinking, “Well, that wasn’t too bad; but God can’t really want us there (because we didn’t really want to be there).”

God wouldn’t let us alone about Cornerstone, however. We continued on, praying and seeking His guidance in this. When Dennis called to talk about coming for a candidating weekend, we simply “had” to say we would. And we did. And here we are.

God knew this is where I needed to be with my family. God knew I was the pastor this congregation needed (I say this with all humility; there really isn’t anything special about me that could have helped bring this congregation around, other than a whole-hearted trust in a completely sovereign God who uses some pretty weak vessels to accomplish His will). And I’m still here and so are they. Twelve years. It seems to have gone by quickly (well, there was that one stretch in ’01-’02 that dragged on for a bit). How much longer does God want me here? I’m not about to try to guess that one. If He grants my heart’s desire, I’ll never leave. These are great people. This is a wonderful opportunity to serve and see what God can do. May He see all the glory go to Him however He sees fit.

Thanks, Lord. Thanks, Cornerstone.

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Free Grace – You Get What You Pay For

I serve on the North Central District’s Council for Ministerial Standing. The Grace Evangelical Society came up as a topic of discussion a while back and during our last meeting we talked about whether a pastor who held to the G.E.S. Statement of Faith could be credentialed in the EFCA.

I will be the first to admit that I’ve not read extensively on this issue of "Free Grace" vs. "Lordship Salvation". I read Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free, shortly after it first came out and haven’t gone back to it since then. MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus, pretty much decided the issue for me and I haven’t had to deal with this much at all until now.

As I understand it, the intent behind Free Grace (FG from this point onward) was to guard and protect the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Works were not to be a part of the equation in what is required for salvation. Admirable. Sadly, I think many who hold to this position have gone far beyond what Scripture even says, have brought about much confusion within churches and, even more sadly, have misled many who thought they were coming to genuine saving faith, only to find their "faith" is greatly lacking something (at best) or inadequate (at worst).

I’m sure I’m guilty of overstating the case, erecting a straw man for the sake of knocking him over easily, but it’s how FG comes across to me in the matter of seeking the conversion of a non-Christian. When they say, in their Affirmation of Belief (August 8, 2005): "No act of obedience, preceding or following faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, such as commitment to obey, sorrow for sin, turning from one’s sin, baptism or submission to the Lordship of Christ, may be added to, or considered part of, faith as a condition for receiving everlasting life." – when they say this, what I hear is: "We really, really want you to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, but if you live a life of a complete profligate afterwards, well, at least you’ll get into heaven." They go on to say, under the heading of "Motivation": "The believer is assured of everlasting life and is thus eternally secure, since that life is guaranteed by the Lord Jesus Christ to all who believe in Him, and is based upon HIs substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection. [No problem here, so far; but they do go on in the same statement] Therefore, it is inconsistent with the gospel and with Scripture to seek to gain or keep everlasting life by godly living [I agree with the "gaining" part, but it’s the "keeping" part I’m so troubled by]. The Scriptures, however, do present several motivations for obedience in the Christian life." Does this not sound like: Please become a Christian; you don’t have to live like one to "get in" but you’ll certainly be rewarded with lots more if you do; but it’s not important nor necessary. The key thing: believe that Jesus died for your sins.

Someone from G.E.S. would have to help me here: What do you do with a verse like Hebrews 12.14 (ESV) – "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord"? That seems pretty clear to me: Strive, pursue, dioko (diw¿kw), – very active verb here (with heavy overtones in the NT of "to persecute" and I don’t think you persecute someone halfheartedly). Holiness is not an option for the Christian. It’s not a condition of his salvation, but it’s not an option once you’ve come to Christ.

I think, if I’m right in this, that G.E.S. puts far too much separation between justification and sanctification. It’s as if the two were completely separate from one another. The one is mandatory to enter heaven (as if that were the final goal of conversion – it is not); the other, while helping you and those around you on this earth, and while helping you pile up the rewards you’ll receive upon entering heaven, is still just an add-on in this life. You’ll get to heaven even if you live a completely depraved life, as long as you confess that Jesus died for your sins.

Bishop Ryle, in his book, Holiness, in the chapter on Sanctification, lists some visible evidences of sanctification (without which no one will see the Lord – and you don’t even have to know Greek to know that this means: won’t get to heaven!).In contrasting what are not true evidences of sanctification, he says: "Genuine sanctification will show itself in habitual respect to God’s law, and habitual effort to live in obedience to it as the rule of life; genuine sanctification will show itself in an habitual endeavour to do Christ’s will, and to live by His practical precepts; genuine sanctification will show itself in habitual attention to the active graces which our Lord so beautifully exemplified; and in habitual attention to the passive graces of Christianity. I would highly recommend Ryle to you, especially chapter 2.

So, can someone who affirms the G.E.S. S. of F. which presents FG in its entirety, belong to the EFCA? Personally, I’m not so sure. While reluctant to say an outright "No," I also see this position promoting great confusion within the larger body of Christ, stirring up needless controversy (there’s a subject for another time) since the very few people I’ve ever met who hold to this position are usually divisive and argumentative, and, would likely not be able to wholeheartedly affirm the EFCA’s Statement of Faith (especially in its revised form).

Not sure where I’ll go with this from here. I may blog a couple more posts for clarification, but that may depend upon comments on this post.

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Some quick thoughts on the EFCA’s proposed revision to our Statement of Faith

For the handful of you who ever think about landing here to wandering around in my mind, I want to direct you to some thoughts divergent from the stream of the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, just for a moment.

When last I blogged (previous to this conference) I was making some observations about the Evangelical Free Church of America’s proposal to revise our Statement of Faith. I think to many within the EFCA, this was a bad move. It must have appeared that the EFCA was now going liberal, throwing out all that was sacred and good, dashing it upon the shoals of contemporary relevancy.

I beg to differ, however. While there are minor aspects of the draft revision proposal I hope to see improved, overall I am pleased with what the Spiritual Heritage Committee has put forth. In my humble opinion, the new statement keeps what was good about the original and shores that up with a bit more detail, such as the atoning work of Christ (old Statement #6; proposal #4 & 5).

Phil Johnson, formally the “Lone Pyromaniac” now more recently of the group Pryomaniacs, provides a marvelous glimpse from C.H. spurgeon once again. Monday’s entry addresses what is probably of concern to some brethren within the EFCA. I think, however, that if they’d think wisely about the proposal, they’ll find it more in line with Spurgeon’s convictions of keeping everyone & everything we hold dear in the wagon, letting nothing fall to the wolves nipping at our heels. I trust this revision will keep us from falling prey to whatever “Downgrade” is current.

A Few Observations About Many Things

Phew!

Last week had me in the Twin Cities area for three days while attending the EFCA’s Mid-Winter Ministerial. Sunday was it’s usual day: Adult Bible Class, Worship Service and Evening Bible Study. Monday had me back in the Cities for our North Central District’s C.O.M.S.’ meeting (Council on Ministerial Standing). Tuesday… hey, that’s today! I get to “stay” home for a change. At last, an opportunity to get caught up on many things, this blog being one of them.

Mid-Winter Ministerial Observations (continued)

The EFCA has tried to present itself as being fairly inclusive to believers of all sorts, as long as they can ascribe to our doctrinal statement. This makes for a rather diverse group of people, especially pastors, when it comes to some “finer” points of doctrine. For example, our existing statement claims to be somewhat “neutral” when it comes to the differences between Arminians and Calvinists (depending upon which field of that spectrum you drop your plow will have you agreeing/disagreeing with that statement, as we heard last week). Dr. Grant Osborne, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School made a claim about this openness of the EFCA at a moment when attitudes were getting a bit tense regarding this difference. Dr. Osborne has always been a defender of Arminianism, but loves his Calvinists brothers & sisters in Christ. To quote him: “It was predestined that I be an Arminian; and, you Calvinists have to work at your Calvinism!” Touché! And I hope my less-humorous arminian brothers get the joke and laugh at that!

Men I’m very thankful for…

Dr. Osborne is one of those. I didn’t realize it at the time I was at T.E.D.S. but he was a gift to us then and continues to be now. May God grant him strength for more years at Trinity.

Dr. John Woodbridge, professor of church history at T.E.D.S. (for both of these men, I’m pretty sure there are a lot more words, letters and titles that ought to go behind their names, but neither one is pretentious enough to ever make a big deal of my forgetting what they are). I had Dr. Woodbridge 2 or 3 times and greatly appreciated him then. At the Ministerial, he gave 3 or 4 5-minute encapsulations of the history of the church’s understanding and development of pre-millennialism, including some portion of the EFCA’s formulation of this doctrine. And he did it so everyone could understand every word, even me! How I thank God he’s “one of us” (ordained in the EFCA since 1987, I believe).

Changes in the Blogosphere

There are changes taking place out there in the blogosphere to which I’ve just entered all too recently. the Calvinist Gadfly (http://calvinistgadfly.com/) announced a couple of weeks ago that he’d no longer be able to keep his blog up. Then just a few days ago, Steve Camp came to his rescue and announced that the Calvinist Gadfly would soon be coming back… as a group-led blog. This will be fun to watch (seriously).

Today, just this morning, Phil Johnson started out with similarly ominous tones (http://phillipjohnson.blogspot.com/) and as I start to get all misty-eyed thinking, “First it was Gary Larson retiring from drawing ‘The Far Side’; then, it was Bill Waterson retiring from drawing ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ ; and now, Phil Johnson is going to stop blogging on ‘The Pyromaniac’. Will it ever stop?!” But, after wiping tears from my eyes (actually, I think I spilled hot coffee over my hand at that point and it really hurt!), I read on and see where Phil is also going the route of a partnered blog (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/). Well, as least that corner of the theological blogosphere is still safe and I can travel there with great comfort and delight. Now, if Doug (www.coffeeswirls.com) ever gives up his Caribou Coffee habit and quits CoffeeSwirls, I think I’m doomed!

Anniversaries

Yearly remembrances are to be looked upon with great delight… most of the time. And today is no different (except that my lovely wife, Ann, heaped burning coals upon my head – no, that didn’t bring the tears to my eyes earlier – by giving me a card when I’ve prepared nothing for her). It was 30 years ago this very day, January 24, 1976, that I stepped up to her front door, rang the doorbell with butterflies playing dodgeball in my stomach and waited for her to open the door. I quickly asked, “Are you ready to go?” She said, “Yes; bye Mom & Dad!” and out to my parents’ car we walked.

This was our first date! 30 years ago (gladly, she’s changed very little in beauty and radiance; sadly, I have). We drove to Cedar Falls, Iowa, making our way to the University of Northern Iowa, stopping at Bob’s Big Boy for supper. She had the fried chicken basket and I had the fish dinner. We watched Jim Goodrich and the boys from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, whoop up on the UNI Panthers that night (Jim graduated from my high school five years previously, was a phenomenal basketball player and home town hero – about 50-60 of us drove there just to watch him play). On the way home, I had the audacity to sneak our first kiss! Seems like only yesterday.

Reports from the EFCA Mid-Winter Ministerial

Changing

EFCA Mid-Winter Ministerial & Proposed Statement of Faith Revisions

It’s always going to be interesting when you throw about 400+ pastors together from a “denomination” (I’ll explain the parentheses later) and let them discuss the merits of revising a Statement of Faith that has been the founding statement since the groups formal inception in 1950. It’s informative. It’s intellectually challenging. Some of the presenters are very stimulating (good thing or we’d fall asleep all too quickly). And then there are the pastors themselves who have opportunity to either ask questions, make comments on the document or the process or the committee that’s been charged with presenting this proposal.

It would be wrong to say that this doesn’t get emotional. It would be wrong to say that it shouldn’t involve emotions. However, there have been some… just a few… who have let their emotions get the better of their good sense and their tongues. It’s a good thing we still believe in the “laying on of hands!” Actually, it’s just as well that they didn’t put me in charge of helping moderate these kinds of things. I’d get Fizick as part of my “Goon Squad” and do some serious laying on of hands!

This has been a good process, however. I think, no matter what the long-range outcome may be, it’s been good because it’s forced us to take a good, hard, biblical look at our existing EFCA Statement of Faith. It’s made us see what we truly believe as EFCA-ers. It’s made us say, with the forefathers of the EFCA, “Where stands it written?” It’s given us good opportunity to dialogue and discuss the absolute essentials of what we believe and what might be a “non-essential” to keep at heart, but not make a dividing distinctive in our EFCA heritage of “all believers, only believers.”

I’m still not certain whether I can “publish” on this blog any of the proposed draft without getting my credentials being placed in serious jeopardy. I’ll check on the possibility of that and let you know as time moves on. This much I can say: I think what has been proposed is good and even necessary given many of the changes in our culture and in the evangelical culture itself. Our statement , in its existent form, is about as simple as it can get. But this lends itself to “weakness” in the day in which we live, where truth is under assault. So, we’ve been seeing how we can strengthen our Statement of Faith by expanding just a bit, changing just a bit, and coming out, in the long run, with a much more definitive and more inclusive statement.

One quick example, without a word-for-word citation: we believe that while we cannot know God’s truth exhaustively, we can know it truly. It helps to keep us humble: we don’t know everything; we can’t know everything. Scripture very plainly says, “…the hidden things belong to God…” (Deuteronomy 29.29). However, God has made Himself known and spoken to us in many and various ways (Heb 1.1). These things, what He has made known, “…belong to us, and our sons forever…” These things we can know and will stand for, believe in and yes, even get a bit feisty about. So, let’s put on the gloves and love one another.

Getting Called Hagar

It’s been a fascinating experience, being at the EFCA Mid-Winter Ministerial. I haven’t been at one of these meetings, for a variety of reasons, for a very long time. Time for that to change now.

However, it’s hard to be present at a meeting that’s discussing a draft proposal for revisions in our EFCA’s Statement of Faith and have another pastor essentially call all Calvinists “Hagar.” Now for those not there (all of you, I’m pretty sure), the comments came from a young pastor in an EFCA who has very clearly made it known that he’s strongly opposed to the proposal as well as the process. And, his most recent/last/hopefully final comments, he compared the idea of even looking to think about revising our SoF like our culture’s fascination with faddish notions. This looking and chasing after fads was then paralleled with Abraham and his choice of a second wife in Hagar. Surrounding this, in context of his statements, was the clear desire to have the Committee remove, from the revised proposal, “all this Calvinist language,” for this is like leaving what we’ve been given and pursuing that which is new and faddish.

As I sat there hearing this preposterous notion, I looked to one of my dear pastoral friends, who is even more reformed in his calvinism than me, and asked, “Did he just call us ‘Hagar’?” To which Randy replied, “I think so; it’s pretty clear that we are.” (To show his humor at all this, in talking during a break, we laughed at the notion of changing all our children’s names to Ishmael, just so there wouldn’t be any confusion in where we stood doctrinally to this ewak brother.) Now that may not have been his intent, so I’ll not judge his intent. However, with that said, all his other comments have been bathed in unbridled foolishness, accusations impugning the character of those on the committee, and using Scripture oft times out of context to stress his points.

This is the EFCA. And in some ways, just like being an American, I strongly disagree with this fellow pastor and I will defend his given right, in this country at least, to be wrong and to reveal that with his own mouth. If I were to answer him in the way in which my flesh kept shouting at me to respond, I would have been, to use Proverbs right back at him, answering a fool with his own folly. That being said (I said that before didn’t I; I apologize for redundancy in phraseology), he’s a Free Church pastor and I’ll love him and pray for him.

Calling It a Day

Closing Session of EFCA Mid-Winter Ministerial

Bill Hamel, president of the EFCA

I’d like to end our time together by simply sharing three points:

1. I’m proud to be the President of the EFCA

I’ve found our interaction over these days to be good, rich, and stimulating. There’s been a high level of theological reflection taking place on both sides of the issues presented these past days. And we haven’t had to agree; no one’s forced you to agree 100% with them, but that’s been a good thing and an honor to the Free Church’s heritage.

I think we’ve seen a moving past what many saw as a forced process; that has been changing over the past days, I trust. It was never intended to be a “top-down” process and I hope you’ve come to see that truth. Over the past nine years, our mid-winter ministerials have taken a direction that allows us to look hard at some of our core doctrinal beliefs. This kind of dialogue is healthy for the EFCA. It helps promote a community of theological thinkers.

2. I’m pleased with the process.

The need was recognized as a part of the role of leadership. You, as pastors, do much the same thing with your own leaders in your own churches when you have a vision for direction and ministry: you think hard on it, present it to the group of leadership, come with more of the idea in shape to your congregations, gather ideas from there and move forward. We’ve brought this document to you; We’ve not communicated as perfectly as some thought we ought; but think about how imperfect your own communication back home is also. We’ve brought this to you for your consideration, your input.

We need to address these matters given some of the ordinations papers over that past years. We need to help our people know what we believe.

The next step is very important: this proposal will get presented to your district conferences, to pastors gatherings, and special sessions. Pastors – bring your elders. Some have said this document is too heady for them…then you’d better get them there! They need to be at this level; it reflects upon you as a pastor is they’re not.

3. Prayer must be a vital part.

Prayer must be a tremendous part of this. We’d better be on our knees; it’s far too important not to be on our knees.