It’s not the best morning. Yesterday was election day here in Ontario and the results did not go the way I had hoped. We have the same government as the day before, but with a much clearer and stronger mandate. I find it a particularly troubling and even threatening mandate. In the aftermath I find my faith being tested. Can I find joy today? Am I going to believe Romans 13:2 today? “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” God knew this. God saw this. God allowed this. God instituted even these authorities. Will I believe it? Will I find joy in it?

Today is a good day to consider the nature of my faith and, even more so, the object of my faith. Last week I was reflecting on the faith of Abraham and observed this: True faith does not demand answers. We don’t need faith when we have all the answers. We need faith when we don’t have all the answers. We need faith when the way ahead seems unclear or intimidating, when answers are hard to find. Faith is trusting in someone who has the answers we lack. Faith is trusting in the goodness, in the character, of God.

This is the faith I see in Abraham when he assented to God’s demand that he offer his son as a sacrifice to God. God asked Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited son through whom God had guaranteed a multitude of nations and, even better, a Messiah. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

The promise was made, the promise was fulfilled, and now God threatened to take it all away. But still Abraham obeyed. Why? Because of this: Ultimately, faith is not in an outcome, but in a person. Abraham’s faith was not in Isaac’s survival; his faith was in God. This means he could lose Isaac without losing his faith. He was so convinced of the goodness and faithfulness of God that he was willing to do what looked impossible. He would hold back nothing.

Later, in the book of Hebrews, we read more about Abraham. The author is boasting in God’s people, bragging about their faith, and he says this: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Quite simply, Abraham believed the promises of God because he trusted the character of God. He trusted God even when the way seemed so strange, so unclear, so contradictory. The Christian faith is sometimes lampooned as being a blind faith, but that is all wrong. The Christian faith is not a blind faith but a seeing faith. We have seen God and love God and trust him to such a degree that we do not need or demand all the answers. We trust and obey, even when we do not understand and even when we cannot see the finish line.

And today I find myself wondering this: Will I trust God even when the way is unclear and even when I do not understand? Will I joyfully submit to God’s will, knowing and trusting that he is good? Is my faith deep enough to say, “I don’t understand, but I know God is good.” Is my faith in an outcome, or is my faith in God?

I should take a cue from Abraham. God gave Abraham three days to walk from his home to that mountain where he was to offer up his son. But on that long and sorrowful walk where he must have been tempted to despair, Abraham was not brooding. He was not complaining. He was not lamenting. Instead, he was considering how God would use this for good. We are told in Hebrews that Abraham made up his mind that God could and would raise Isaac from the dead. When Abraham was being tested, he chose not to focus on the pain, but on the triumph, and spent his time imagining how God was going to work even this “for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I should do no less.

God remains. God’s promises remain. My trust in God remains.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

 

The False Teachers

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers and to examine the false doctrine each of them represents. Along the way we have visited such figures as Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Adventism), Norman Vincent Peale (Positive Thinking) and Benny Hinn (Faith Healing). Today we turn to a man who pastors a mega-church, whose sermons are a staple on TBN, and who has written a long list of bestselling books.

T.D. Jakes

TD JakesThomas Dexter Jakes was born on June 9, 1957 in South Charleston, West Virginia and grew up in nearby Vandalia. As a teenager he was charged with supporting and caring for his invalid father and dedicated himself to that task. While still a young man he felt that the Lord was calling him to ministry so he enrolled at West Virginia State University and began to preach occasionally. Before long, though, he dropped out of school to work at Union Carbide, while continuing to preach on a part-time basis. In 1981, at the age of 24, he married Serita Ann Jamison.

Around this time Jakes, still eager to be a minister, founded Greater Emmanuel Temple of Faith, a small, independent, Pentecostal congregation in Montgomery, West Virginia. The church quickly began to grow from the ten founding members meeting in a small storefront to two hundred and then three hundred attendees. Jakes soon came into contact with Bishop Sherman Watkins who had founded the Higher Ground Always Abounding Assembly, which at that time was an association of more than two hundred Pentecostal churches. Watkins ordained Jakes and suggested that he plant a church in the Charleston Area.

In 1990 Jakes moved to Charleston and began to focus on the spiritual concerns of the women in his church, many of whom were in abusive or other otherwise difficult relationships. He called his class “Woman, Thou Art Loosed” and this later became the title of his bestselling book and the name of an annual conference. By 1993 he had moved his congregation to Cross Lanes, West Virginia, where the mixed-race congregation exploded to more than 1,100 people. The next year he established T.D. Jakes Ministries to produce televised sermons and conferences. In 1996 he moved to Dallas, Texas, where he founded the Potter’s House. Today some 17,000 people call it their home church. His television broadcast “The Potter’s House” appears on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and other networks around the world, making him one of the world’s most prominent and recognizable preachers. His annual MegaFest event draws up to 100,000 people each year. He has written more than 30 books, many of which have appeared on the lists of bestselling Christian books.

A gifted speaker and excellent communicator, Jakes has been widely praised for his teaching and his leadership. In September of 2001 he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine with the title, “Is this man the next Billy Graham?” He has also appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s network and has reciprocated the invitation, inviting her to appear at his MegaFest event. He has acted in or produced several movies including the currentHeaven Is For Real. Among his acquaintances he counts both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

False Teaching: Modalism

T.D. Jakes is associated with several troublesome teachings including the prosperity gospel and positive thinking. For our purposes, though, we will look at his teaching on the Trinity. Jakes has long been associated with Oneness Pentecostalism which holds to an unorthodox position on the Trinity. This position is known as Modalism or, historically, as Sabellianism.

Modalism holds that Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not refer to distinct persons in the godhead, but to different modes of existence of a single person. It teaches that in ages past God manifested himself as the Father, during the incarnation of Christ he manifested himself as the Son, and subsequently he manifested himself as the Holy Spirit. As one of its key tenets it states that God cannot exist in more than one mode at a time. So while this teaching does hold to a form of trinitarian theology and while it does proclaim the divinity of Jesus Christ, it denies that there are three distinct persons who together make up the godhead. Hence the belief statement at the Potter’s House says, “There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Formerly the statement was even clearer: “We believe in one God who is eternal in His existence, Triune in His manifestation, being both Father, Son and Holy Ghost AND that He is Sovereign and Absolute in His authority.”) The important word here is manifestations. Where historic Christianity affirms persons, modalism demands use of manifestations or modes.

Followers & Adherents

Jakes has wide influence in many circles. Some 17,000 people attend his church on a weekly basis and millions more encounter his teaching through his broadcasts, conferences, movies and books. He is one of a few Christian figures who has a voice that extends into the broader culture through association with Oprah Winfrey, American presidents, and other leaders.

What the Bible Says

These minor distinctions in trinitarian theology, a word here, a letter there, actually represent colossal differences and even eternal differences—the difference between heaven and hell. Modalism has long been labeled as a heresy meaning that if you believe it in place of the biblical understanding of the Trinity, you are not and cannot be a true Christian.

We can define the Trinity, as the church has historically understood it, through a series of seven simple statements: There is one God; The Father is God; The Son is God; The Holy Spirit is God; The Father is not the Son; The Son is not the Spirit; The Spirit is not the Father.

In all that is, in all that exists, there is only one God. No truth was more precious to the Israelites of old. In Isaiah’s prophecy God records:

There is no other god besides me
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:21-22)

It could hardly be clearer. The New Testament is equally explicit. Paul writes, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). James agrees: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

There is one God. The other six statements affirm both unity and diversity within the godhead. There is one God who exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet each of these is distinct from the others. There is unity here, but there is also diversity. There is a real sense in which God is one, and there is a real sense in which God is three.

To summarize those seven statements, we might say, “God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.” In all that we believe, in all that we affirm or deny, we must hold these seven statements together. If we take away one, the entire structure collapses. In fact, every time the Trinity comes under attack, or every time the Trinity is denied, it is because one of these statements has been taken away or tampered with.

What words can we use to describe this quality of one-ness and this quality of three-ness? God is one (blank) and three (blank)? Christians came to use the term essence to describe the one-ness of God, and the term person to express the three-ness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is one essence and three persons.

Though he has recently denied being a Modalist, T.D. Jakes continues to use manifestations in place of persons and continues to affirm the faith of those who remain ardent Oneness Pentecostals. This is no minor quibble in theology because it contradicts and confuses the orthodox and accepted view of the Trinity. Until he clearly affirms the orthodox definition of the Trinity and denies the Modalist definition of the Trinity, we must regard him warily as a false teacher.

 

Son of God the Movie

In late 2003 and early 2004, we were told that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was going to change the world. We saw breathless slogans like, “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life had made him a household name, predicted “a spiritual tsunami” would hit when the film released. When he saw this tsunami coming, he planned a two-week preaching series leading up to the movie’s release, booked 47 theatre screens so members of his church could attend with their lost friends, invited a long list of celebrities and billionaires to a premier showing, and prepared a three-week small group curriculum for follow-up. He claimed that his church rode this tsunami to incredible results: “Over 600 unchurched community leaders attended our VIP showing; 892 friends of members were saved during the two-week sermon series. Over 600 new small groups were formed, and our average attendance increased by 3,000.”

It is hard to overestimate the buzz, the excitement, and the anticipation prior to The Passion. Do you remember it? I do.

Back in 2004, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church that tried to ride the Passion wave by mimicking just about everything Rick Warren did. The pastors raised tens of thousands of dollars from the congregation, then bought movie passes, booked theaters, distributed tickets, formed small groups, bought Warren’s follow-up curriculum, and waited to transform the city. Giving away the tickets was the easy part—people gladly accepted free movie passes to the film everyone was talking about. All the tickets went, but as far as I know, not a single person—not even one—came to any of the follow-up studies. No one was saved. Nothing happened. All the time, energy and resources gained nothing.

In the film’s aftermath George Barna got to work and found that the results we saw were far more typical than what Warren reported. “Among the most startling outcomes is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.” Either The Passion was not actually a great opportunity for evangelism, or most churches botched it.

Ten years later it is indisputable that all the talk of The Passion of the Christ being a powerful tool for evangelism was far more hype than reality. The marketing slogans earned Mel Gibson hundreds of millions of dollars, and brought lots of money to marketers and merchandisers. But the claim that it was the best outreach opportunity since Pentecost is downright embarrassing. For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie.

Yet here we go again. We are just a couple of weeks away from the next The Passion of the Christ: Mark Burnett’s Son of God. Based on the 2013 miniseries The Bible, it is being marketed much like The Passion before it. B&H has just announced a new small-group Bible study from Rick Warren titled Son of God: The Life of Jesus in You. The press release quotes Warren as saying, Son of God is “the best movie I’ve seen on the life of Jesus in years.” The release also says, “The film has made headlines in the build-up to its Feb. 28 nationwide release as churches and organizations across the country have been renting out cinema multiplexes to show the film on every screen the night before its official release.”

As far as I can tell, and measuring two weeks prior to release, there is far less enthusiasm for Son of God than there was for The Passion of the Christ. I expect the reason is largely attributable to the old phrase, “once bitten, twice shy.” There’s a feeling of deja vu about this film. Still, I see marketers applying pressure and I see some churches buying in.

I want to urge caution, and I can draw these cautions directly from lessons we learned—or should have learned—from The Passion of the Christ.

The first caution is that The Passion caused us to look away from Scripture. This is ironic, of course, since The Passion was based on Scripture (plus a bit of imagination and a dash of Roman Catholic tradition). The fact is, though, that God saw fit to give us the Bible written, not displayed. He choose to give us a book, not a film. Those who pushed churches to embrace The Passion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made all kinds of promises, and many of those promises were based on the media. They claimed that by putting the old message into a new media it would come alive to a whole new generation and would do what preaching would not or could not. Many churches looked away from Scripture, even if only for a few weeks, and put their hope in a film.

The second caution is that The Passion took us off-mission. There is nothing more central to the church than the preaching of God’s Word. There is nothing that cuts deeper or builds stronger than the Bible faithfully taught. There is nothing we should expect God to use more powerfully than the preaching of his Word. Every revival in days past—every true revival, at least—has been a revival sparked by and carried on through preaching. We should have no expectation that God will accomplish through a film what he has only promised to accomplish through preaching. Too many churches veered off-mission when faced with the opportunity of The Passion of the Christ.

I have not seen Son of God. It may be a powerful film that is faithful to Scripture. I hope that is the case. It is entirely possible that God may choose to use Son of God to call people to faith. He may use it to generate interest in himself. He has used stranger means than this to work his will. Rick Warren’s follow-up Bible study may be excellent and may drive people from the screen to the Book. Lots of good may come. But still, both of these cautions apply to Son of God just as they did to The Passion. Don’t look away from Scripture and don’t get off-mission.

As you consider this new film, remember that we have been here before. Remember that there are a lot of people hoping to make a lot of money from this film. Remember that God promises to bless the preaching of his Word, not the display of that Word on the silver screen. Don’t expect a movie to do the Word’s work.

My children are growing up fast and, between you and me, they’re growing up a little bit faster than I had expected. My son is thirteen now, just a half school year away from being in high school. I sometimes find myself remembering when I was thirteen, and the kinds of things I awakened to and became interested in. Though I see now that I was only a kid, I was sure that I was all grown up. It’s disquieting at best. Meanwhile my oldest daughter is 11, going on 16. I love her to death, but she too is getting far too old for her own good. There are three kids in our home, but only one of them is still a child.

As my kids grow up, I find that I need to have important but uncomfortable discussions with them. They are unfortunate discussions, but the kind you’ve got to have in a world like ours. I suppose the only thing worse than having those discussions is not having them.

Some time ago we implemented a plan in our home to protect the kids from some of what lurks out there on the Internet. We removed Internet access from some devices, limited it on others, and applied filters that keep tabs on what we are doing online. It has been very smooth from a technological perspective, but a little less so on the interpersonal level.

Recently my son said, “Dad, you’re treating me like I’m addicted to pornography. But I haven’t ever seen it and don’t want to see it!” And he’s right, to some degree. If I’m not treating him like an addict, I am at least treating him like a pre-addict, someone who has the inclination, or who may well have it before long. In this way I think I understand him a little better than he understands himself. Of course our Internet plan is not designed only to protect the children from exposure to pornography, but that is still one of its major purposes.

But his exasperation and hurt feelings gave us opportunity to talk about one of the principles I have found helpful in my own life: When you are at your best, plan for when you are at your worst. I see this as an application of 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Right there, in the middle of this discussion about sexual immorality, the power of temptation and the promise in temptation, Paul gives a call to humility: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” This is consistent with what he told the church in Rome: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).

There is a kind of weakness, a kind of vulnerability, that may come when we are convinced of our strength. It is when we are not being tempted, it is when we are standing strong in the Lord’s grace, that we ought to consider the times we will be weak and tempted and eager to sin. We need to assume such times will come and we need to use the moments of strength to put measures in place that will protect us when we are weak. The wise nation builds its defenses in peace time, not once the enemy has invaded its borders; the wise homeowner buys insurance before the big catastrophe, not once the flood has already risen. The wise Christian fights sin even when sin seems distant and dormant.

I do not consider myself particularly prone to the temptation of pornography. I can sit at a computer early in the morning or late at night and not feel any pull to abuse the privilege. Not at this point. And yet, I explained to my son, I treat myself as one who is disposed to the temptation. I do this because I know my own proneness to sin and I do this because I have seen so many men shock themselves and their families by succumbing to the temptation. This is obviously Satan’s major point of attack on men today—old men and young men alike—and it would be folly to assume I’ll never face it. It would be folly not to prepare myself right now while I’m thinking straight. And it would be folly for my boy as well.

I have yet to meet the man who hasn’t been tempted at one time or another. And for this reason I have filtering software and accountability software and, even better, men who ask me good questions about my life. In the end, I explained, I am only holding my son to the standard I use for myself—the standard of a sinful man, wanting desperately to avoid a major fall, and all too aware that in those times I begin to lose my delight in God, I grow in my delight in sin. This, I hope, is the sober judgment the Lord calls us to.