Halloween 1988

In October of 1988, I was a student in my second year of seminary. I had just returned from spending the summer in North Bay and was enjoying the independence of living alone at the ripe age of 21 on the east side of Toronto.

Our College and Career group at church held a Halloween party. For some reason I didn't have time to get a costume together. Still, I decided to attend.

One of the first people to ball me out for my lack of costume was the clown you see at the center of the back row - a picture I took because I was the only one out of costume. I had no idea who this clown was, but it was strange to be balled out by someone I didn't know. Later on that night, she gave the Bible study. Yes, a clown gave a Bible study at a Halloween party in a church. You figure it out.

I was intrigued and couldn't wait to find out who this person was. I soon saw her in her normal clothes and was still intrigued. I was very interested. Unfortunately, so was one of my housemates. That all sorted itself out, and half a year later we were dating. A year and a half after that we were married. But it all started this night 19 years ago.

I often wonder what it means that I married someone who balled me out the first time I met her. I also wonder what it means that I married a clown. But it's too late to look back, and I really wouldn't want to anyway.

Rediscovering the Gospel


On this day 490 years ago, Martin Luther sent out his 95 Theses to some church leaders. It's also reported that he also posted his proposal at the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which served as the university bulletin board.

It's not often that a document changes the world like this one did.


You wouldn't expect much from a document written in Latin and intended for academic debate. It wasn't as harsh as a document he had written just a month before. But Luther's 95 Theses sparked something like few other documents ever have.

A sample of what he wrote:

1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said "Repent", He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

62. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

You can read the 95 Theses online, but here's a summary from a history text:

Repentance is not a single act of penance, but a constant change of heart and mind extending over one's lifetime. The Christian seeks rather than avoids divine discipline. The true treasure of the church is not the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints, subject to papal control, but "the most Holy gospel of the glory and grace of God," freely offered to repentant sinners by faithful preachers.

Luther hadn't anticipated what would happen. The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied. It was one of the first controversies to spread by the new technology of the printing press. Within two weeks, the Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

On June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Luther that he risked excommunication unless he recanted some of his teachings. On January 3, 1521, Luther was excommunicated. The Reformation had started, and it all began on this day 490 years ago.

The 95 Theses Today

You can go in a lot of directions when you talk about the 95 Theses and today:

  • the importance of good theology applied to life
  • the role of academics in the service of the church
  • technology's influence on the church
  • the church's need to be always reforming

Tim Challies is hosting a Reformation Day Symposium, and you can read many articles on the 95 Theses on his site.

What I'm thinking about most today, though, is what lay at the heart of the 95 Theses: a rediscovery of the gospel. The person who has helped me understand why this is so important is Tim Keller, who says:

We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17)....

All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel...

The main problem, then, in the Christian life I that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says (on Gal. 2:14), “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel—seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.

If Keller is right - and I think he is - then the most important thing we can do is to continually come back to the gospel, preaching it to ourselves, and continually finding new implications for our lives. That's exactly what Luther did 490 years ago today. It's what we still need to be doing today.

A good night on a hard bench

Last night I spent five (five!) hours in the local Montana's with three Canadian legends: Jordon Cooper, Bill Kinnon, and Brian Mullins. Maybe they're not really legends, but we had fun anyways.

No sign of Pernell or Jared - maybe they were scared by the presence of two Baptists and one ex-Baptist? (Actually, Pernell was busy.)

Good guys, but I realize I don't travel enough. Listening to stories of swimming with sharks and N.T. Wright in the Bahamas, driving up the South African coast, and bungee jumping in Australia made me feel a bit of wanderlust. Fun night in any case.

Transforming the consumer church

I've been blogging through the first couple of chapters of Paul Metzger's book Consuming Jesus. So far, Metzger has been raising some familiar concerns. The evangelical church isn't what it should be.

Critiquing evangelicalism is not rare or particularly hard. But Metzger targets something unique: consumerism that fosters race and class divisions. This is an area I haven't seen explored before now.

In any case, Metzger's criticism "is not the angry and cynical attack of an outsider; rather, it is the criticism of one who loves the evangelical church's historical values of piety and holistic outreach and mission, but one who longs for reform."

So what do we do about this? This is where I appreciate Metzger's direction. It's easy to drift to pragmatic or structural solutions to problems that actually run much deeper. Metzger suggests that we look elsewhere for the solution to evangelicalism's problems:

The "magic" of Christ's saving work runs very deep - deeper than any one atonement model can delve. Christ's atoning work cancels out individual sins in addition to defeating the fallen principalities and powers in order to build beloved community. Jesus has provided the necessary condition for living authentically in community. This chapter investigates the deep magic of Christ's atoning work, which serves as the foundation stone for breaking down divisions between God and us and between us and others - including consumer divisions between different races and classes - and making us all one.

According to Colossians 2:15, Christ conquered fallen powers while on the cross. These powers include "angelic beings, institutions, and ideas or systems of thought...When angelic beings, institutions, and ideas become autonomous, they become fallen powers." Examples of fallen powers include "the Roman Empire and its rule of retribution, pharisaical religion and its legalistic distortion of Israel's election, and the American enterprise and its demands for individual self-fulfillment and consumer preference." Jesus has confronted and conquered these powers.

Metzger writes:

Jesus' resurrection reconfigures life and its priorities so that God's people can die to the yuppie dream and live anew to this nobler vision of reality. Although the consumer church is a fallen power, it can be transformed when it is consumed by Jesus so that it may bear witness as a kind of first fruits of Jesus' new world order.

The rest of the book addresses how Christ's atoning work leads to restructuring three areas:

  • the Christian life
  • the church
  • outreach

More to come in each of these three areas.

Blind to sinister forces

Not every book on the consumerism and the church includes a chapter on fallen powers. But Paul Metzger's book Consuming Jesus devotes a healthy section to this topic. Metzger writes, "Sinister forces are at work today, and they have an impact on the church and the broader culture to their very core, which sometimes leads us to lose our wits and discernment."

We live within a context of consumerism and free-market enterprise. "In a free market church culture," Metzger writes, "those who cater most to this consumer force thrive best." Many of our models for church within North American are built around catering to consumer forces. We don't even question this approach, yet it's led to class and race divisions, and all kinds of other problems within the church.

Metzger describes how we are blind to a number of diabolical forces that are currently affecting us:

Racialization - We believe that racialization is no longer an issue. "Jim Crow legislation, like slavery, may be a thing of the past," writes Metzger, "but racialization and classism are not; they simply take new forms under the law of consumer preference." As the movie Crash illustrates, we are suspicious and fearful of "the other" - even in the church.

Consumer-Market Forces - We believe that "consumerism and the free market are basically benign, and that catering to people's desires is good if the church wishes to grow and be successful." But the market forces dehumanize us, turning us into "solitary individuals who shop and sell." It commodifies human life, rather than offering the free gift of the gospel. It also leads to race and class divisions based on income.

Success - Churches face the temptation to water down the message in order to be successful. "Prophets in America are not often successful - so they usually get stoned." Metzger asks, "Will the consumer-sensitive church ever be prepared to contend against the incessant consumer impulses that lead people to shop and find the church that gives them the spiritual goods they want...at the least cost to themselves?" In other words, will we keep trying to satisfy the consumer market for churches so that we grow, or will we challenge it even if it costs us?

Metzger reminds us of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. The senior demon Screwtape advised his nephew Wormwood that "if he cannot keep his patient from attending church, he should coax him into becoming a church shopper."

Social Structures - We are blinded to social structures, because we focus on personal evangelism. We mistakenly think that "if we focus on building personal relationships, social-structural problems such as racialization will eventually take care of themselves."

Metzger says, "We American evangelicals need to move beyond our pragmatic orientation and short-term vision of focusing almost exclusively on building personal relationships with individuals to win them for Christ." We should "guard our strengths" (like personal evangelism) but also "critically engage our weaknesses."

Metzger's conclusion: "We evangelicals have been structured historically and culturally in such a way that we are often blind to the divisive forces arrayed against us." The rest of the book outlines a biblical and theological paradigm to address this situation.