Somewhere along the way we got this idea that God is really interested in giving us a good, easy life. That he wants us to be happy. That he wants us to deal with the least amount of pain possible. That suffering has no part in his will for our lives.

Maybe those things are true, but the reality of the world that I live in, and the reality of the person that I am, is that there are parts of my deep heart that are violently opposed to God. There are yet-unredeemed parts of my being that rage against God when things don’t go the way I expect they should go, or when I don’t get what I want, or when I perceive that God has not delivered on a promise that I tried to manipulate him into making to me. Sin is simply a part of who I am, and it will take God at least the rest of my natural life to transform me into the image of his Son.

Transformation is painful. It’s one thing to give up some sin that you don’t really care about, it’s another thing altogether to repent of the ways in which your very personality, and way of thinking, has been corrupted by the sins you commit and the sins committed against you. That’s the transformation that leaves a mark on your character.

God is good. And I’ve got the scars to prove it.

This is a sort of paraphrase of the things that Paul wrote about his own life with God to the many churches that received letters from him. God hit Paul where it hurt him most time and again. He even once said to a man about Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” He’s done that with many of the great saints of church history.

God wounds us because only by being wounded can we move through healing toward godliness.

Suffering is the definitive mark of a disciple of Jesus. After all, we follow the one who was crucified on our behalf. And like what Jesus suffered on the cross, the suffering we endure will one day be redeemed by our Heavenly Father.

I believe that God is currently trying to root out all the sinful desires, all the idolatry, and all the wickedness from your heart. That’s what he’s doing to me. And it hurts. But he’s doing it in order to make us like his Son. He’s doing it because he’s good; I’ve got the scars to prove it. And if you stick with God long enough, if you stick with him through the crap of your life and engage with what he’s doing in the midst of it, you too will be marked with the scars that prove the goodness of God.

In case I haven’t blogged about this enough, this coming Sunday is the first worship service of Ember Church! God has brought us through a lot in the past few months, and we’ve seen both his tenderness and his strength. I could not be more excited to go to church this Sunday evening!

Our first sermon series will be through the book of Jeremiah, which is actually the longest book (highest word count) in the whole Bible. Obviously, we won’t be hitting everything, so I’m going to be doing a little sermon supplementation on the blog from time to time. Today I want to write about some of the things we won’t have time to talk about this coming Sunday.

Jeremiah the Subverter

Jeremiah grew up under the reign of King Josiah, who was, quite possibly, Judah’s most righteous king. He put a lot of religious reforms into effect, and brought the people back to worshipping the one true God. He outlawed idolatry and destroyed the shrines of the various false gods that had been leading the people astray for almost a century.

But Josiah’s grandfather Manassah had pretty much sealed the fate of the country when he encouraged and participated in child sacrifice. There’s just no coming back from that. So even though Josiah was leading a revival, God called Jeremiah to declare a message of judgment and condemnation against the nation. His prophetic ministry subverted the reforms of the king. God called Jeremiah to say, “Time’s up!” The reforms of Josiah were not enough to save the nation. Even though he was, in many ways, the ideal king, Josiah was unable to stem the tide of God’s judgment against Judah.

Predictably, Jeremiah encountered resistance throughout his life. (It seems, though, that he was never opposed by Josiah.) People don’t like to hear negativity; they detest those who pronounce judgment. But Jeremiah remained faithful to his ministry of subversion and his message of judgment, and God carried out every word that he spoke through Jeremiah.

Near the end of his life, on the other side of God’s judgment (executed through the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon), Jeremiah was finally able to offer a message of hope. We find these words in chapter 31:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. …I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. …For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

There is hope on the other side of judgment for Judah and Israel. But the exile to Babylon was not the full extent of God’s judgment. When the people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, it became clear that, though they had returned to the Promised Land, God had not returned to them. They were still in a spiritual state of exile. This is because the judgment of God had not been fully executed.

That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus suffered the full judgment of God for the sins of Israel, Judah, and the whole world when he died on that Roman cross. We live on the other side of God’s judgment. It has already been executed, and his own son took the full penalty of it because God loves us beyond measure. And then God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. He declared Jesus guilty of our sin. Jesus endured the sentence of our sin by dying. Then God declared him innocent by raising him from the dead.

And so we have hope–a real, living hope–because we have a real, living Savior. And we enter into this hope not through some rigorous moral exam, but through simple, childlike faith that Jesus is who he said he is and did what he set out to do. And we demonstrate this faith by repenting of our sin, receiving full pardon, and living under the authority of Jesus, who now reigns over all creation as the Resurrected King.

I don’t know where you’re at today. I don’t know what setbacks you’ve encountered recently. I don’t know what you’re going through right now. Maybe you’re having a crisis of faith–in God, in people, in yourself. Maybe what was once so certain has become hazy, gone out of focus like a bad photograph.

I’ve had a lot of fun planting Ember Church, but I’d be lying to you if I told you that it was easy. Church planting is hard work, if for no other reason than that the devil is opposed to it. We’ve experienced setbacks. We’ve gone through trials. We were cruising along the highway going 65 when all of a sudden someone put a speedbump on the interstate. Every church planting team goes through this. Every established church goes through this. Heck, every family, every corporation, every school goes through this. It’s a part of life.

What makes it especially difficult for a church planting team, though, is that you begin to ask questions like, “Is God still with us? Does he want us to quit? Are we doing the right thing here?” What was once so certain becomes hazy when we get hit by the trials of life. It happens. Trials happen. It doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us. Quite the opposite, actually. Any team that’s doing God’s work and fulfilling his purposes for their community will experience resistance from Satan.

The enemy has come to steal, kill, and destroy. He wants to steal your joy. He wants to kill your spirit. He wants to destroy the work of God in your life. That is always his aim. He wants you to doubt God’s call on your life. He wants you to doubt God’s presence with you. Don’t. Faith is trusting in God despite the mounting evidence. Faith sees with eyes that look through circumstances and see the living God, standing in the midst of it all, inviting you to his side. Faith sees the true, deeper reality, that God is–that he simply and fully is–and in that finds overwhelming joy.

In one of the most incredible passages in the whole Bible, Peter puts it like this:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope

through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.

This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,

who through faith are shielded by God’s power

until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

In all this you greatly rejoice,

though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith

—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—

may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Though you have not seen him,

you love him;

and even though you do not see him now,

you believe in him

and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,

for you are receiving the end result of your faith,

the salvation of your souls.

That’s 1 Peter 1:3-9. You should probably read it again.

You have been given an entirely new life, a life that is rooted in a hope that lives because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. You have been given an inheritance that can never wear out or be destroyed–an inheritance that Jesus is keeping for you in heaven.

God’s power shields you from the wiles and lies of Satan through your faith in Jesus Christ. This protection lasts for more than a moment–it lasts from this moment until the day Jesus returns in power and glory to judge and reign on the earth.

Because of this…rejoice! Greatly rejoice! Even though you’re going through crap right now, that crap has come so that you have the opportunity to persevere–so that you can see just how genuine your faith in Jesus is. And rejoice, because this crap too shall pass.

You haven’t seen him; and yet you love him. You haven’t seen him; and yet you have put your trust in him–the resurrected King of the cosmos. And when you press into that reality, into what is really real and truly true, then you will be filled with an inexpressible joy because, in that, you are receiving what your faith has promised, the salvation of your soul in the here and now.

There has been some recent discussion over a small part of Ember Church’s statement of faith. When declaring our beliefs about Scripture, we state this:

We believe that God sovereignly provided human beings with the sixty-six books of the Protestant Canon as his written revelation, and that these books are authoritative for all Christians, infallible in all matters of faith and practice.

The part I’ve put in bold is the statement in question. Within some evangelical circles, saying that the Bible is infallible in all matters of faith and practice is code for theological liberalism. Let me say, definitively, that neither I nor Ember Church are “theologically liberal”. Neither are we “fundamentalist”. Instead, we consider ourselves historically orthodox in the Protestant, evangelical tradition.

Why, then, does our Statement of Faith not declare the Scriptures to be “inerrant in the original manuscripts”? For many evangelicals, the inerrancy of the Bible is a “watershed issue”, meaning that it is fundamentally definitive of evangelicalism, and a hill on which one should die. Inerrancy is not a position that should be compromised, and anyone who does is slipping toward theological liberalism.

I think this is untrue. In fact, I understand infallibility to be a much stronger position on the Bible than inerrancy. Let me explain why.

The Questions of the Enlightenment

Inerrancy is an apologetic doctrine. That is to say, it is a belief formulated in defense of Scripture. Inerrancy is not so much motivated by the desire to explain Scripture, but rather to defend its authority and accuracy as God’s revealed word. Inerrancy is evangelicalism’s attempt to answer the skeptical questions of modernism and the Enlightenment. “The Bible is so full of contradictions and errors,” cry the skeptics! “No it’s not,” retort the believers, “it is without error in the original manuscripts.”

But I believe that the questions of the Enlightenment are designed to trap believers. When the skeptics tried to trap Jesus with trick questions, he skillfully evaded them and turned the tables on the doubters. Inerrancy, however, tries to answer the trick questions of the Enlightenment, whereas infallibility says to the Enlightenment, “You’re asking the wrong questions.” The precision of details and the length of days have absolutely no bearing on what God is trying to communicate in his word.

It’s as though the Enlightenment has come along and said, “If football is the perfect game, then why can’t you hit a home run in it?” And we’ve gone ahead and tried to explain just how one might hit a home run in football. Their questions are nonsense, and we need not spend time addressing them. When the doubters questioned Jesus about paying taxes, he turned the tables on them and said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” I believe the doctrine of infallibility, properly understood, does likewise.

The Standard of Error

Who decides what is error and isn’t? Should an ancient document be judged by modern standards? Who gets to set the standard of errancy?

God sovereignly ordained the Scriptures to be written in premodern times, long before the advent of modernism, the Enlightenment, and the supremacy of science. Paul, Isaiah, and Moses had different standards of error and definitions of precision than the team of scientists that flies people to the moon. This seems so obvious as to go without saying, and yet I see that people on both sides of the aisle–both skeptics and believers–are demanding that Scripture conform to the precision of modernity. Isn’t it more remarkable that the Bible was written over a period of 1500 years by dozens of different people in wildly divergent cultures and environments, all forming one cohesive story which explains life and all of history from beginning to end? Isn’t that so unfathomably amazing that whatever tiny errors of precision (according to the standard of modern science) are absolutely inconsequential?

Just as it is nonsense to apply the standards of baseball to the game of football, so it is nonsense to apply the standards of modern science to the content of Scripture. The Bible wasn’t written last year. It was written on scrolls and parchments by shepherds and itinerant preachers long before printing presses, copy machines, and ctrl+c ctrl+v were invented. You don’t have to defend the Bible. Anyone who knows anything about ancient manuscripts and literature knows that the Bible is the gold standard.

And that’s one of the main problems I have with inerrancy–it looks to a standard outside of Scripture. It says, “there is no error.” But as John Frame says, infallibility declares of Scripture, “there can be no error.” In other words, the Bible, not the Enlightenment, sets the standard of error. The Bible is its own standard.

Original Manuscripts

As an apologetic doctrine, inerrancy is intellectually weak in that it points to “the original manuscripts” as being without error, but we no longer have any original manuscripts. They no longer exist. In my opinion, then, inerrancy is an incredibly weak position apologetically, because we can’t produce the evidence to substantiate our claim. We are, in effect, putting our faith in some documents that no longer exist.

Moreover, we are also unintentionally undermining the very good science by which we reconstruct the Scriptures through the manuscripts we do have–and we have a lot! The New Testament, in particular, is, by far, the most well-attested ancient document in the world. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to early and reliable manuscripts. For a rundown on how the science works, check out this post. This is a strength of Scripture to be embraced, not a weakness to be ignored.

The Historicity of Christianity

One critique of what we have in our Statement of Faith is that it doesn’t account for history. But our faith is fundamentally historical. The Gospel is the account of the historical crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Christian faith is rooted in Jewish history. Because infallibility allows the Bible to set the standard of error, we believe that everything the Bible says happened, happened.

In conclusion, infallibility is a richer, more robust understanding of Scripture than inerrancy. In fact, infallibility includes inerrancy, but only according to the standards that Scripture itself ordains, and not according to the standards of skeptical modernity. The way that I understand infallibility is that, rather than being code for theological liberalism, it is actually more theologically conservative than inerrancy because it allows the Bible to speak for itself, on its own terms; it honors God’s sovereignty in his decision on the where and when and how and by whom of biblical authorship; and it honors God’s power in preserving, for the church, a superabundance of ancient manuscripts from which we can get a solid understanding of what was written in those elusive original manuscripts.

If you’ve managed to make it through this ridiculously long post, I’d love to hear your feedback. You can either leave a comment or send me an email.

One of the things that I learned in seminary is that every preacher’s sermon preparation process is different. Mark Driscoll recently shared that he spends about an hour of prep, and then preaches for an hour as he externally processes the text. That’s great for Mark, who has a photographic memory, but it sure ain’t gonna work for me. I don’t have a photographic memory and I’m not an external processor, so my sermon preparation takes a lot longer than one hour.

The first thing that I do is prayerfully choose a text. Because Ember is going through books of the Bible, I’ll generally read the whole book through at least once. (I read Jeremiah once the whole way through, but for a book like Titus, which is going to be our second series, I’ll read it through several times.) Once I become familiar with the whole book, I’ll break it up into sections. I’ve had to be choosy with Jeremiah, so I picked those sections which I felt were, a) most preacheable, and b) presented a holistic picture of the book.

The first page of my notes on Jeremiah 1

Once I’ve picked a text, I print it out in a format that I can mark up and take notes on. As you can see from the pictures, I take a lot of notes. I’ll write down everything I think of, from the antecedents of important pronouns to insights that I glean from the text. This is probably the most important step of the process, as I am hoping to fully immerse myself in the Scripture I’ll be preaching. I want to know it inside and out. I want to hear the voice of the author. I want to feel the heat of the sun under which he first penned or spoke these words. I want to feel the heart of God as he reveals his word through that author. I want to know the author’s world, and the first audience’s world, so that I can know how this text makes sense in my world.

The second page of my notes on Jeremiah 1

I let Fee & Stuart’s core principle drive me as I study the text: The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. I want to understand how it was God’s word to those original readers so that I can know how it is God’s word for me and my congregation. This is the process of exegesis, which basically means that the preaching is trying to draw the original meaning out of the text, rather than to put his own meaning into the text.

After studying I go through what I call The 7 Good Questions, which, apparently, I’ve never posted here at the blog. This is a fuller process of exegesis of which the above is the answer to just one of the seven good questions. The seven questions are:

[list]
  1. What am I reading?
  2. What do I see?
  3. What is the literary context?
  4. What is the historical context?
  5. What is the biblical context?
  6. What is the principle?
  7. How do I apply this?
[/list]

After answering those questions, I move on to what I call Sermon Notes, where I put together a structure and flow, come up with a title and a big idea, pull out the key verses, and write a brief synopsis. Then! Finally! I begin writing the sermon after, once again, inviting the Holy Spirit to fill me, to speak to me, and to speak through me. I’ll generally go through two or three revisions of the sermon before I feel good about it. The last step is to preach it, either to my wife or to a wall, and then make any final changes. It’s a long process, but it’s a lot of fun for me, and well worth the time.