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The beauty of despair

It is hard to claim that twenty-first-century America is a happy place. Anger and bitterness abound, and joy and peace are in short supply. A sense of despair hangs over us. As a people, we seem to have no sense of purpose.

We try to alleviate this despair with busyness or toys, so we distract ourselves with work and social media and television and smart phones. Such things, though, do not solve our basic issues, so we seek therapy, believing that a psychiatrist and perhaps the right drugs will get our minds balanced to deal with the problems of contemporary living.

In many churches the pastor is the spiritual therapist, and his sermons are therapeutic, giving attention to hearers’ felt needs. People flock to such churches because life is all about them and their issues, and they know that this particular pastor is going to deal with human concerns and give them some spiritual therapy to apply to their psychological sore.

Unfortunately, we miss the root issues while trying to fix the surface ones. The primary reason for our despair is sin, and the solution is not a pseudo-psychiatrist masquerading as a preacher.

Fallen man and woman live in selfish sinfulness. They live outside of God and in rebellion to his will. This man or woman may attend church periodically, perhaps even every Sunday morning. Perhaps he or she recognizes that something is out of order in life and considers church as the place to get it right.

While the therapeutic salve or always being on the go may distract momentarily distract us, in the dark of night and the quiet of one’s soul the despair continues. It may be dulled, but it is not removed or replaced. Unfortunately, many stumble through life, day by day, pushing their despair aside with the distraction of entertainment or social media, work or recreation, or alcohol or pharmaceuticals. Anthony Burgess [1600-1663] observed this about the nature of man centuries ago: “Oh, it is to be feared that there are many that give themselves lusts, and carnal pleasures, that so they may put a foggy mist between their conscience and themselves. Others dig into the world, labouring to become senseless, that so there may be an eclipse of this light by the interposition of the earth. Others run to damnable heresies, denying Scriptures, God, heaven, hell. . . . What are these but refuges of guilty consciences? We must distinguish between our carnal concupiscence [desire], and conscience; between deluded imaginations, and conscience; between an erroneous and scrupulous conscience, and a well grounded and truly informed conscience, and when we have done so, we must follow conscience as far as that follows the Word.”

The despair remains because the condition of the fallen person remains. Scripture instructs that, as fallen humans, we are “dead in trespasses and sins,” that we “follow the course of this world, . . . the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” that we live “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and [are] by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

We are helped only when we recognize that despair is a God-given gift to alert us to the fact that we are not what we were intended to be. God created us to live in fellowship with him, but like the fish longing to live on land, we rebelled and find ourselves out of the environment unto which we were created.

God has graciously gifted us with despair so that we will grow weary of living in an alien environment. Our conscience convicts us of our waywardness, and the Word of God and the Spirit of God point us to Christ. Only in Christ will our lives find the peace and sense of purpose unto which we were created: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” [Romans 14:17 (ESV]). Despair arises from living in the wrong environment, but despair is God’s gift to drive us to Christ, the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

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What kind of church do we want Cornerstone to be? Do we want to be a “Christian ghetto church” that withdraws from the community, concerned only about the people we have and those who happen to find us? Are there not ways that we intentionally can share Christ with others? Perhaps we can open our homes to unbelievers and lead conversations to aspects of the gospel, something the Lord would use to soften hearts and draw unbelievers unto himself.

Are there ways that we can inform others of some of our beliefs? There really are Christians looking for “a Cornerstone,” but they don’t really know that we exist. Oh, they may know there is a church called “Cornerstone,” but they don’t realize that we hold to Reformed doctrine. How can we better get that word out?

Unfortunately, many who are satisfied with today’s typical Baptist church culture assume that’s what we are. When they visit, they discover otherwise and don’t return. Others are looking for a Reformed fellowship and assume that we are basically the same as any other Baptist church, so they don’t even look into Cornerstone to learn what we’re about. How can we better inform the community? Don’t assume they know. Most do not.

. . . . . . .

Thinking about prayer, Alistair Begg has shared some useful observations about prayer that we should find helpful:

“If our prayer is meager, it is because we regard it as supplemental and not fundamental.

“We can do more than pray after we have prayed but not until we have prayed.

“We do not pray for the work. Prayer is the work and preaching is gathering up the results.

“God does not delay to hear our prayers because he has no mind to give; but that by enlarging our desires, he may give us the more largely” (William Philip, Why We Pray, 16).

. . . . . . .

Dr. Ray Ortlund, pastor of Immanual Church in Nashville, Tennessee, addresses a fundamental issue confronting American churches, and this is certainly true of many, many Baptist churches: ““The need of our times is the re-Christianization of our churches, according to the gospel alone, in both doctrine and culture, by Christ himself. Nothing less than the beauty of Christ will suffice today, though what a renewed church will look like may, at present, lie beyond our imaginations” (The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ, 18-19).

. . . . . . .

Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse [1895-1960], longtime pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, commented on the sad case of Cain: “He started with human reason as opposed to divine revelation; he continued in human willfulness instead of divine will; he opposed human pride to divine humility; he sank to human hatred instead of rising to divine love; he presented human excuses instead of seeking divine grace; he went into wandering instead of seeking to return; he ended in human loneliness instead of in divine fellowship. To be alone without God is the worst thing that earth can hold, to go thus into eternity is, indeed, the second death” (Genesis, 38-39).

. . . . . . .

Jesus says some things about discipleship that are shocking to twenty-first-century ears and rarely repeated in pulpits. For instance, Jesus said, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49–53). We must not think casually about following Jesus.

The word “reformed” helps theologically minded people understand something about us, but the term means little to others, so they ask, “What is a Reformed Baptist church?”

First things first: we are Baptists in the historical sense. While we officially use the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message as informed by the Abstract of Principles (1858) of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, we find our beliefs more explicitly stated in what is known as the Second London Baptist Confession, or the Baptist Confession of 1689. Early Baptists typically identified as either Particular Baptists or General Baptists, and the distinction was primarily over the extent of Christ’s atonement. Because Particular Baptists believed in the doctrines of grace (we’ll get to those doctrines in a bit), they believed that Christ died effectually for those who would believe upon him (particular atonement), not potentially for everyone in the world (general atonement). Consequently, Cornerstone is in the tradition of Particular Baptists.

Particular Baptists arose out of the settled dust of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin notably defended the New Testament doctrine of the sovereignty of God in all things generally and in individual salvation specifically. Particular Baptists would primarily differ from the earlier Protestants over the subjects of salvation. Baptism was an ordinance reserved for believers in Christ only, not for infants.

Cornerstone holds to the five solas of the Reformation to summarize our beliefs and practices: sola fide, by faith alone; sola scriptura, by Scripture alone; solus Christus, through Christ alone; sola gratia, by grace alone; and soli Deo gloria, glory to God alone.

As mentioned above, Reformed Baptists hold to the doctrines of grace: total depravity, unconditional election, limited or particular atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. We believe in the total depravity of man, that all humans are corrupted by sin. Total depravity does not mean that we are as evil as we could be, but all of us are corrupted with evil (Romans 3:10-12). If God did not work in our hearts, none of us would ever seek him because we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).

We believe that God has chosen his people unto salvation unconditionally (Ephesians 1:3-11). God does not base his choice of us before the foundation of the world on a decision to follow him that he sees will occur in the future. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, so we have nothing in ourselves about which to boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We believe that the atoning death of Christ is expressly for those who believe upon him, not for each and every person who has ever been conceived, regardless of their belief in Christ. Jesus said that he gave his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15). But is not Christ “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the world” (1 John 2:2)? He is indeed, having died not just for certain believers but for believers throughout the world, regardless of ethnicity, language, social status, gender, or any other way groups of people are set against others.

We believe that God’s grace is irresistible. God regenerates the unbelieving heart to desire to repent of sin and trust in Christ: “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), and he later said, “No one can come to me unless it has been granted him by the Father” (John 6:65).

We believe that all those who truly come to Christ will persevere in their faith throughout their lives. Those in the church who turn aside from Christ “went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19).

In addition to the doctrines of grace, we believe in the centrality of preaching the Scriptures, the Word of God, in the gathered worship of the church. The Bible alone reveals who Jesus is and what God requires. Everything flows from the Scriptures, whether the subject is who God is, what salvation requires, how Christians are to live, how worship should be order, how a local church should be organized, whatever it may be. “Preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). A Reformed Baptist church is guided not by whatever will “work” but by what the Scriptures say.

Cornerstone is established as a Reformed Baptist fellowship, and we want always to be reforming our understanding of the church and our lives in light of the Scriptures. Unto God alone be the glory.

When we consider the activity of a local church, we too often bring our own preconceptions in deciding what should be done or not done. What we must overcome, however, are our own preconceptions, whatever they may be.

Many people see the local church as a business and run it as a business. The purpose of a business is to turn a profit and grow, and so many churches have incorporated methodologies to lead to that growth. Others see the local church through the lens of common sense, and still others see the local church through the filter of their previous church experience.

Relatively few intentionally seek to make the Scriptures the basis for their practices. One problem that brought us to where we are today is that the latter part of the nineteenth century saw an intentional change in how the local church operated. “What is scriptural?” was often replaced with “What works?” How churches operated were changed in order to bring in more people and have a greater presence in the community. That trend continued and gained greater traction in the twentieth century and remains with us in the twenty-first century.

Cornerstone is by no means the ideal church, but we seek to be biblical in how we operate. The Bible is the basis for our theology and for our methodology. We may be a little different from what folks have experienced elsewhere, but if we were going to be like everyone else, there really is not a good reason for our existence.

Why do we have elders? Most Baptist churches do not have a plurality of elders. Most have one elder, the pastor, and several deacons that basically function as a board of elder. The Bible, though, indicates that local churches should have a plurality of elders. Elders were appointed in “every church” (Acts 14:23) and in every town (Titus 1:5). If someone is sick, “let him call for the elders of the church” (James 5:14).

Why are only men ordained as elders and teach mixed-gender adult classes? The New Testament provides for male leadership in churches. In 1 Timothy, one of Paul’s epistles that focuses upon life in the church, the apostles writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:12-14). Paul roots the practice all the way back to creation.

It’s become fashionable in some churches to have a Saturday evening worship service in order to attract more people who don’t want to “mess up” their Sundays with church. Why do we meet at all, and why is Sunday set aside for our primary corporate worship service? We have former members who questioned this. The Bible exhorts us to come together as an assembly, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). We meet on Sunday because that was the practice of the early church, meeting on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians16:1-2; Revelation 1:10-11).

Why do we practice church discipline? Jesus instructs us to do so (Matthew 18:15-20), and Paul provides specific commands (1 Corinthians 5; Titus 3:10-11).

To be sure, some things are matters of preference. We meet on Wednesday evenings for fellowship and prayer and Bible study. Scripture does not require this, those the Scriptures do exhort us to fellowship and pray and study the Bible. The early church in Jerusalem did it daily (Acts 2:42-47).

What time should we meet on Sundays? The Bible does not say, so this is a matter of preference. We are used to churches meeting during the latter part of Sunday morning and then again that evening. What is the reason for this schedule? Perhaps in an agrarian culture, the early morning and mid-afternoon of a Sunday were spent doing necessary things around the farm, such as feeding livestock, milking the cows, or collecting eggs. We live in a different day. Some churches now have one extended gathering, meeting on Sunday morning with Bible study and worship. They then fellowship over a simple lunch and afterwards have a devotional or sermon or maybe a discussion about the Sunday morning sermon or a theological issue. By 2:00 or so, they depart for their homes for rest and preparation for the coming week.

This is a succinct yet thoughtful response of Matthew Vines’ “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.”

I was not a little intrigued to read an article by Jonathan Elliott entitled “I’m gay, liberal, open-minded – and a convert to Christianity.”

Within Mr. Elliott’s circle of friends, claiming to be a Christian seriously raises eyebrows: “My conversion has made me the token ‘church guy’ in my friend group. I can’t tell you the number of awkward conversations I’ve had over the last several weeks about Charleston, the Duggars and the scariness of the uber-awful Quiverfull cult. Whenever something even vaguely religious enters the news cycle, my friends inevitably find ways to lean on me as the church expert, from the sudden disappearance of 7th Heaven in the wake of Stephen Collins’s sexual misconduct, to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and whether anyone would want pizza at a gay wedding anyway.”

Okay, so Mr. Elliott is not a conservative. I get it. Many think that we Bible-believing Christians deem that only those with conservative views and vote Republican can be Christians, and perhaps some conservative Christians do think that. A liberal can be a Christian. A person with a socialistic view of government and economics can be a Christian.

But is Mr. Elliott really a Christian? A Christian is one who has turned from his sin and turned to God through faith in Jesus Christ, looking to the work of Christ on the cross as satisfying divine justice due the repenter’s sin. The apostle Paul speaks of Jesus as the One “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus himself commanded, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

By biblical standards, Mr. Elliott cannot be considered to have converted to Christianity. He may have converted to a church that does not believe the gospel, and his church doesn’t, but he is no true follower of Christ. Mr. Elliott writes, “I’m still the person I was before I became a Christian, and a baptism isn’t a brainwashing. This change in my life didn’t turn me into a raging nutball – at least, I’m no more of one than I ever was.” The Scriptures, though, declare, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

For Mr. Elliott, a diabetes diagnosis led to a good deal of introspection, and his therapy sessions for coping with his disease were “rooted in a belief in a higher power.” He spent two years checking out some twenty congregations of differing denominations and settled on one which displayed “the openness, diversity and the clear sense of tradition I sought. It was also strongly inclusive of the LGBTQ community, and welcomed both women and men as clergy members.” Mr. Elliott found a church that basically reflected his beliefs. Sin and righteousness and repentance and faith in Jesus had nothing to do with it.

And that is sad. I’m sad for Mr. Elliott because he has accepted with satisfaction and a bit of self-congratulation a false gospel instead of the true one. He has deluded himself into believing that he is at peace with God when nothing could be further from the truth. His “conversion” was to reinforce his beliefs with a dose of God mixed in. God is little more that a “higher power” in whom one believes.

And yet Mr. Elliott is not alone. Millions are like him. Conservative folks may respond with, “That’s right! Those progressives never really come to the truth.” Sorry to burst one’s bubble, but many conservatives never really come to the truth, either, at least not about Christ. They confuse conservative values with Christian discipleship. They are for the display of the Ten Commandments and against same-sex marriage. They are dismayed over the removal of God from the public square and yearn for an America long gone, but they have not recognized themselves as condemned sinners who have violated God’s righteousness and stand in dire need of a Savior and redemption. I fear that hundreds of thousands of conservative Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and others are no closer to the kingdom of God than Jonathan Elliott. They may hold traditional moral values and may even follow them scrupulously, but they have never truly repented of their sin and fled to Christ for forgiveness and his righteousness. There is no real love for the Lord in their hearts.

May God be pleased to grant both them and Mr. Elliott repentance and faith.

“How do you respond to non-believers who accuse Christians of being hateful to people who support lifestyles that are not according to the precepts of our faith?”

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