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.

This morning I read Mark 7 as part of my devotional reading. (I do the M’Cheyne reading program on youversion, and yes, I’m a couple days behind.) The first half of the chapter is a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees about ceremonial cleanliness.

Apparently, Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate, which broke the tradition of the Jewish elders. (The washing of hands had more to do with ceremonial or ritualistic cleanliness than personal hygiene.) When the Pharisees called Jesus out on this, he laid into them pretty good, calling them “hypocrites” and dropping some Scripture on them. (We would call this a Jesus Juke today, but what did Jesus call it? A “me juke”? “Typical conversation”?) Then he called out the Pharisees for having traditions that contradict the commands of Scripture. There’s a golden preaching moment here about our own traditions and beliefs that we value so highly but which, ultimately, contradict Scripture. But I’ll let that one pass…

As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus goes on to essentially rewrite all of the Old Testament food laws! Speaking about food, he says, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them.” This is a bold statement in that culture, and it certainly wasn’t lost on Mark, who commented on it, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” This is such a loaded statement that I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll just have to let that one pass, too…

But Jesus isn’t done yet! He calls the Pharisees (and the rest of humanity, for that matter) on the carpet for the sin that resides in their hearts. That, he says, is what really defiles someone.

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, our of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come–sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

The Pharisees made sure to obey all the food laws because they thought that, by obeying Torah and Tradition, they would be clean, undefiled. But Jesus told them they were already defiled because of the sin that lives in their hearts. Our fundamental problem is not that we become defiled by the things we do, but that we are already defiled by the sinful desires that reside in our hearts, and those sinful desires inevitably lead to sinful actions.

The Pharisees’ attempts at ritualistic cleanliness were futile. In the same way, your attempts to be good enough for God are pointless. Because of indwelling sin, you simply cannot be good enough for God. None of us can. Our only hope is if someone who does not have sin can provide a way for us to identify with himself so that, when we stand before God at the final judgment, he will vouch for us.

Wouldn’t you know it? This is exactly what Jesus has done for us, and the way he has provided for us to identify with himself is through faith. No cleanliness commands. No tradition of the elders. No impossible moral code. Simply faith. How beautiful is that?

Way back in the day, I used to make mix tapes when I was a kid. I would put together a list of all my favorite songs and painstakingly record them to a cassette tape. That’s right, a cassette tape. I even went so far as to design cover art for the tapes. Don’t hate.

God is Great, God is Good (edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister) is kind of like a mix tape. It’s a collection of essays from many of today’s leading evangelical scholars, including Alister McGrath, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas, John Polkinghorne, and others. The book is like a mix tape in that it gets the best that these authors have to offer, each writing within their respective sweet spots. (Wow, talk about mixing my metaphors!)

9781844744176The subtitle of the book is, “Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible”. This is a book of apologetics written in response to the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, et al. William Lane Craig opens the book by lobbing an attack against Dawkins’s arguments that God cannot exist, and the rest of the authors follow suit with short, succinct apologies for various elements of Christian faith.

Due to the nature of the book, most of the chapters are too short to present a sustained argument. This is the sort of work that hits the highlights, and then points you to further resources for more detailed information. This approach is perhaps most useful for Christians who have occasional interactions with skeptics because it will provide them with basic answers to some of the questions that have been made popular by the writings of the New Atheists. While not making any comment on the quality of the work, I would call this a primer on apologetics, not a textbook.

Some of the most rewarding material comes at the end, where the reader will find an interview between Gary Habermas and noted atheist-become-theist scholar Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential atheist voices in the world in the last half of the twentieth century, and his conversion to theism in 2004 caused quite a scandal. While, to my knowledge, he never became a Christian before his death in April, his “leap of faith” was certainly a dramatic and powerful conversion.

Also at the end of the book is an Appendix written by Alvin Plantinga, where he reviews Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion”. If you don’t know who Alvin Plantinga is, you would do well to look him up. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “If God exists, and he is good, why is there evil in the world”? This is often assumed to be an ironclad proof that God does not exist. Well, not anymore, thanks to Alvin Plantinga. I won’t go into details here, but almost no serious philosophers consider the problem of evil to be a legitimate critique of the existence of God.

If you’re interested in apologetics, especially in conversing with people who are influenced by the New Atheists, then you should definitely pick up this book. You’ll find that the arguments of Dawkins, et. al., are really not so devastating as they seem. If you’re really serious about Christian apologetics, then you’ve probably already read everything in this book. No need to pick up the mix tape when you already know the albums.