Monday, January 30, 2017

Examining the Worship Song "Above All"

Above All is a popular praise and worship song made most famous by Michael W. Smith, released on his album Worship (which came out on September 11, 2001). Smith first came across the song, written by Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche, when he was going through material to sing at George W. Bush's inaugural prayer service.

Smith said President Bush was so receptive of the song, he asked Smith to play it every time he saw him. Said Baloche, "I'm humbled and blown away that a simple prayer of worship, started at my little piano, found its way to the President of the United States. The possibility that this song could be an encouragement to him is such an honor."

CCM Magazine later included Above All in their list of the 100 Greatest Songs in Christian Music. Lenny LeBlanc talked with CCM about why he thought the song had been so meaningful to many Christians: "I think because it's such a beautiful picture of how a God that is above everything would become like a rose trampled on the ground, take the fall and think of us... above all."

While that sounds lovely, it's not true. Biblically, the song is false.

I remember being taken with the song and falling in love with it. But it was sometime around 2006 or 07, when I was coming out of a spell of listening to false teachers, that I began to realize just how off the song really was. It starts out wonderful but meets its demise at the end of the chorus. The first verse goes:
Above all powers
Above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began
Above all kingdoms
Above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There's no way to measure what you're worth
So far, so good. The Bible says that Jesus is preeminent (Colossians 1:18), meaning that He is truly above all. Above Him there is nothing to gain. Nothing is higher. Surely you've been taught that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

Who knows the mind of God? Who can be His counselor? Who can give Him anything that He must repay? "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:34-36). And if the song ended there, we'd be pretty good. But then we get to the chorus:
Laid behind the stone
You lived to die
Rejected and alone 
Like a rose trampled on the ground
You took the fall
And thought of me
Above all
And suddenly the song has just contradicted itself. If Christ is above all things, and yet He thinks of us above all things, then He cannot be above all things. He has elevated something higher than Himself, and that's us. You might say, "But wasn't that His ultimate motivation when He died for us? Because He loved us?" Actually, no.

Now, don't get me wrong. God does indeed love us. Ephesians 3:18-19 says that it is a limitless love that surpasses knowledge. Romans 5:8 says, "But God shows His love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us." His love for His children is demonstrated in the cross of Christ. But don't confuse His love for us with being His ultimate purpose.

Philippians 2:9-11 says that "God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Christ's ultimate purpose in His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension was the glory of God.

Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, which you might remember as being the summation of all the law and the prophets. Jesus saves us from our sin, death, and the wrath of God not because He thinks of us as being more important than His own glory, but rather for His glory.

Psalm 23, that hugely popular Psalm that says such pleasing and comforting things like "The Lord is my shepherd," and "He makes me lie down in green pastures," and "He leads me beside still waters," and "He restores my soul," says in verse 3, "He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake." This is a constant theme throughout the Psalms:
  • Psalm 25:11, "For your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great."
  • Psalm 31:3, "For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me."
  • Psalm 79:9, "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name's sake!"
  • Psalm 106:8, "Yet He saved them for His name's sake, that He might make known His mighty power."
  • Psalm 109:21, "But you, O God my Lord, deal on my behalf for your name's sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!"
  • Psalm 115:1, "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!"
  • Psalm 138:2, "I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word."
  • Psalm 143:11, "For your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!"
Notice that God has exalted above all things His name and His word, not us. The skeptic will say, "What an egotistical, self-centered God!" But exactly whose glory should God be for? If He is for ours, He would cease to be God. The reason why we, as sinful human beings, have a problem with God being for God is because we want to take God off His throne and seat ourselves there.

But even while we were enemies of God, we have been reconciled to God by the death of His Son (Romans 5:10). Jesus gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and purify for Himself a people for His own possession (Titus 2:14). Our salvation in Jesus Christ is to the praise of His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6). We read in 1 John 2:12, "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name's sake."

There are two reasons I believe Above All has been so popular: 1) Because there are some people who like the idea of God exalting us above Himself; or 2) Because those who love the song think it sounds pretty and are not actually considering what they're singing, or maybe even what the Bible says.

Let us be mindful that in our worship we are giving praise and honor and glory to the right person. God alone is worthy of our worship... above all.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone: A Review

From Walden Media, Vertical Films, and ... the WWE? comes the Christian-themed movie The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, hitting theaters January 20. Because wrestler Shawn Michaels plays a minor role in the movie, apparently that makes it the property of WWE Studios. Which means you'll find it in the library of WWE greats like See No Evil, Leprechaun: Origins, and Queens of the Ring.

Please understand I'm being wildly sarcastic.

The story is set in the present-day fictional town of Masonville, a suburb of Chicago. It involves a washed-up actor and former child-star Gavin Stone (played by Brett Walton of Agents of SHIELD fame), who gets arrested for disorderly conduct and is forced to do community service at, of all places, a church. After not having much success with a mop, he figures out he can join their production of a Jesus play entitled Crown of Thorns and work out his community hours doing what he loves to do the most.

Since Masonville is conveniently Gavin's former hometown, his dad lives nearby, so Gavin has a place to stay and a loose subplot of having to work on his estranged relationship with his father (Neil Flynn of Scrubs fame). The director of the play, Kelly (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), happens to be the pastor's daughter, and brings a bit of romantic tension into the story (it's just a crush, nothing serious).

The lighthearted moments...

One of the issues with the storytelling is that it's a small-church plot squeezed into a mega-church setting (yes, I'm being ironical). The church is huge. There are literally thousands of people at their disposal and a budget that is in the millions of dollars annually. But they act like they're limited on people and resources, including good actors for their big-budget play.

When we first meet the pastor, he is dressed in work-clothes laboring on a water heater. This is right after we've watched Gavin enter a nice building, walk long hallways, witness staff prayer meetings, stroll past a cafeteria full of children, and peer through big picture windows. It makes no sense when seconds later the pastor is crawling out from under an appliance saying, "At $30 an hour, it's always better to just fix it yourself" and then sits down in his leather chair in his immaculate office. Pastor Alan (played by D.B. Sweeney from The Cutting Edge for those 90s movie buffs) is a complete dud of a minister, but we'll get to that.

Though the first half of the movie has its share of problems, it can still be rather witty. When Gavin was a child-star, he was known for a sitcom character named Cliffy whose catch-phrase was, "Don't look at me!" They work that into the movie where Gavin says, in some manner of words, "Don't look at me, look at Jesus" (but bear with me, that's not as genuine as it sounds).

The movie also makes fun of American Christianity. When Gavin stands up at his audition and gives his testimony, it's Christianese cliches and lyrics from secular songs:
"Hi, everybody! As you probably already know, my name is Gavin Stone. But, what you probably didn't know is that I'm a Christian. I wasn't until a few years ago, when I hit rock-bottom. I just felt something missing. I guess you could call it a God-shaped hole. So I came to a place where I decided to climb that stairway to heaven and let Jesus take the wheel. And ultimately, hey, let go and let God. I'm still a bit new to it, too. So forgive me if I don't always get the details perfect."
And everyone totally buys it with nodding heads and moist eyes. That was hilarious. He had pulled out his smartphone and looked up what a "Christian testimony" was, that's what he came up with, and everyone is totally fooled. There's a massive irony regarding that scene, and you probably already know what it is. But I'll wait until the end of the review to pull back the curtain on it.

Gavin's treatment of Jesus is also rather amusing. The way he delivers Jesus' lines is very, "Look at me, I'm Jesus! Even the wind and the waves obey me!" In the background the disciples are all talking over each other because they can't get their pacing right. I laughed a time or two in those scenes. Kelly has to tell Gavin that Jesus was humble, not an attention-getter.

There's a touching moment I enjoyed where Gavin talks to a young girl who is hearing-impaired using sign-language. He tells Kelly that he played a role in a Hallmark movie where he had to learn how to sign. Kelly tells him that if he can learn sign-language for television, then he can spend at least half that time learning about the role he's playing as Jesus. That was a well-done scene. Unfortunately, that very scene sets up a huge theological problem.

And then it all falls apart...

Gavin's research about Jesus never involves reading the Bible. He Googles some Christian catch-phrases, but never opens up the Scriptures. There's not one sermon. Not even a Bible lesson. He goes to church, but we only hear a popular worship song, never any of the pastor's message. He goes to a small group, but Gavin prays a Braveheart prayer over pizza. We never actually witness them studying the Bible.

Gavin offers to help his dad with his carpentry work because Jesus was a carpenter. He helps out in an auto-garage fixing up cars for single moms because, you know, it's what Jesus would do. Gavin learns about being humble because Jesus was humble. But he never once hears a single passage on who the Bible says Jesus is. In fact, the movie mocks having to know anything about the Scriptures.

There's a scene in the movie where they're working on a part of their play, the story from John 8 where the woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. When Gavin, in the role of Jesus, is attempting to say, "Neither do I condemn you," he breaks character and says, "I'm sorry, why does he stick up for her like that? Does he know this person?"

At that point, one of the disciples stands up and says, "Hey, I can answer that question." And his explanation, word-for-word, sounds like this: "It's called the doctrine of atonement. What it means is the totality of human iniquity can only be removed by the one who establishes those moral parameters. However..." Then the director interrupts him and says, "Not right now."

Not only is that not the doctrine of atonement, the movie is making fun of learning about theology. The plot literally hands control of understanding Jesus to a character who is an unbeliever. The pastor, who couldn't distinguish between a genuine Christian and a tree stump (Matthew 7:19), says to his daughter, the director of the play, "We need Gavin." Then obviously the church doesn't need you as their pastor!

All a person needs to do is be humble, do nice things for people, learn wood-working with your dad, go to a Jesus play, and hey, you've got Jesus figured out. I'm not crazy about Jesus plays in the first place. I don't think churches should be doing them. But setting my own convictions about that aside, this movie never delivers on what it promises. The "resurrection of Gavin Stone" never happens.

Even the slogan gets it wrong. Church doesn't change anyone. Jesus does.

And then it gets even worse...

Gavin bails on the play to take a role in a show filming in LA. In the midst of dumping everyone who was depending on him, he confesses, "I am not a Christian" (no duh). Then he goes to take his part in a Hollywood production, which he discovers he doesn't like, so he decides to go back to Chicago and fulfill his obligation to the Jesus play -- simply because he didn't like the TV role he was being offered. Oh, and because there's a girl he likes.

The cast, the director, and the pastor let Gavin back in the play to play Jesus -- despite the fact that Gavin has fully and openly confessed to not being a Christian. When welcoming him back to the production, the pastor's daughter says, "Dad reminded me of all that Christian stuff, you know, what our church is about, and how this could really impact you, and what grace looks like, and blah blah blah." Yes, blah blah blah indeed.

Understand me clearly: that is not what grace is. Grace is not letting an unbeliever play Jesus in a church play. When a person is lost, when they are dead in their sins, when they have broken the perfect law of God, when they are under His wrath, when they are headed for hell, grace is showing them their sin and telling them the gospel. It is not a gracious thing to lead them to believe lost sinners can still be part of the body of Christ anyway. That's a lie, which you might recognize as being very ungracious and unloving.

The Bible says it is through the law of God that we come to a knowledge of our sin (Romans 3:20, 7:7). When we preach the gospel, it is imperative to first tell a person that they have broken God's perfect law and what they deserve for that is death. Once they realize they stand condemned before God and under His wrath, they have ears to hear the good news of the gospel, that through His Son Jesus Christ our sins will be forgiven.

There's a place in the movie that would have been perfect for that message. After flying back from LA, Gavin says to Kelly, "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make this right." Kelly could have said, "There's nothing that you can do to make this right, just like there is nothing you can do to make yourself right with God."

She could have showed him his rap-sheet; all of the things he has done as Gavin Stone (which by Hollywood standards is actually rather tame -- I don't think they ever go into him being a sexual deviant, just a heavy drinker and public nuisance). She could have then pointed to the Bible and showed him how fornicators, drunkards, and liars will not enter the kingdom of God. They will be cast into hell (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Revelation 21:8).

Being in a Jesus play doesn't make him right before God. Neither does doing nice things for people or making handicapped little girls laugh. Only the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ can make him right. Jesus is the one that makes you humble before God. He's the one that brings you from death to life. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, and whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life! But no genuine love exists in this movie, and no such message of grace is ever told to Gavin Stone.

Furthermore, it's ungracious and unloving -- downright destructive, actually -- to tell the audience that this guy, Gavin Stone, is fit to tell you who Jesus is. I guess I'm referring to two audiences here: there's the audience that is watching this movie, and there's also the fictional audience who paid for tickets to see a production where the lead is being played by a professing unbeliever.

"Look at this poster and receive eternal life!"

It doesn't matter that the church had a sold-out crowd -- shut the production down and refund their money. The guy playing Jesus has a mind that is set on the flesh and is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7). The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh (Galatians 5:17). But the movie sends the message that Jesus plays make people Christians, and if they hadn't let Gavin play Jesus, then he wouldn't have become a Christian and neither would anyone else. (Again, the pastor has virtually zero function in this movie.)

While "hanging on the cross," Gavin's silent prayer of confession to God is this: "Alright, I give in. I surrender. My way didn't work. I missed out on all this. I missed out on you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all of it. So here goes." Then in the character of Jesus, he rolls out the line, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Next, Gavin is walking out of the tomb to audience applause. The resurrection of Gavin Stone. Get it?

But there's been no understanding of sin, and therefore no repentance, and therefore no resurrection of his dead soul. There's no understanding of who God is or who His Son is, therefore Gavin does not know God and cannot worship Him. What Jesus' death on the cross means and what His resurrection means is mocked in the script.

All that Gavin decided was that church is a better deal than Hollywood. The people treat me better here, the girls are still pretty, and hey, I can still be an actor, even playing the biggest roles on the biggest stages. When his girlfriend asks him, "What happened out there?" He tells her, "I believe." But believe what? Nothing has been presented to believe in!

In conclusion...

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a light-hearted film that pretends to be a Christian movie but is actually everything wrong with American Christianity. What makes the scene where Gavin shares his mock-testimony ironic is this: That's everything this movie is. It makes you think you're hearing and seeing something genuinely Christian. But it's every bit as fake as fake Christianity can be.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Breaking Down Beth Moore's Comment at Passion 2017

The annual Passion conference was held last week at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, headed up by Passion City Church pastor Louie Giglio and featuring speakers like John Piper, Beth Moore, Christine Caine, and Francis Chan. The conference targets mainly young adults. In addition to preaching and music, there's a big push for ending the evil of human trafficking. I've never attended, but my sister has. The year that she did, I watched the entire thing online.

This year's conference caused a stir making even the pages of Rolling Stone when pop star Carrie Underwood took the stage with David Crowder to sing her song about baptismal regeneration, Something In the Water. Underwood claims to be a Christian, known for another Christian-esque hit, Jesus Take the Wheel. However, the often scantily-clad performer came out in support of same-sex marriage years ago. She has no business having a platform at a Christian conference, let alone being invited to sing a song about baptismal regeneration.

Josh Buice, director of the G3 Conference (which I really wish I was attending this year), wrote a great article at Delivered By Grace, which you can read by clicking here. The article was wisely entitled Passion Without Knowledge is Deadly. That's not only a warning concerning Underwood's cameo, it's a concern regarding the conference et al.

Over the last couple of days, John Piper and Matt Chandler have both drawn criticism online for reposting -- okay, hang on, this is going to get confusing -- a comment from Beth Moore taken from the sermon she preached at Passion as summarized by Louie Giglio's wife, Shelley, and retweeted by Ann Voskamp. Did that make sense?

Here was Moore's comment as recalled by Shelley Giglio and retweeted by Voskamp:
You will watch a generation of Christians -- OF CHRISTIANS -- set the Bible aside in an attempt to become more like Jesus. And stunningly it will sound completely plausible. This will be perhaps the cleverest of all the devil's schemes in your generation. Sacrifice TRUTH for LOVE's sake. And you will rise or fall based upon whether you will sacrifice one for the other. Will you have the courage to live in the tension of both TRUTH and LOVE? -Beth Moore
Now that sounds about right, right? Someone in my congregation might even say, "Brother Gabe, haven't you preached that exact same thing?" I have. I have warned my congregation about teachers in particular who will set the Bible aside while calling for unity -- "just love" at the expense of the truth. In fact and ironically, Beth Moore is one of those teachers I've warned about.

About three years ago, Beth Moore spoke at James Robison's Awaken Now conference where she said the following about a coming revival:
"I believe that the Lord has placed it on my heart to tell you that as it comes, and it will... If we'll be willing to stop telling what it has to look like, it's coming. But we must be prepared in advance for scoffers. I'm going to say that again: we must be prepared in advance for scoffers. I want you to look at one another and say, 'Be prepared for scoffers.' And here's the thing: the unbelieving world's scoffing is not going to bother us that much. We're used to them thinking that we are idiots... But it's going to come from some in our own Christian realm, our own brothers and sisters. We're going to have people who are honestly going to want to debate and argue with us about awakening and downpours. They're going to say, 'That's not the way it should look.' You know what, dude? I'm just asking you are you thirsty?"
At Awaken Now 2014, we have Beth Moore warning about those who are going to be critical regarding what authentic unity should look like according to the Bible. At Passion 2017, we have Beth Moore pleading with Christians to watch out for those who are going to set aside the Bible for the sake of unity.

If the statement from Passion 2017 came from anyone else but Moore, I'd be fine with it. Like I said, I've preached on that very thing as recently as the last few weeks. But Beth Moore does ministry with noted heretics like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. So when she says that there are Christians who are going to set the Bible aside for love's sake, I look at her ministry and I see her doing that exact thing.

From left to right: Victoria Osteen, Beth Moore, Liz Curtis Higgs, & Priscilla Shirer; preaching at Osteen's church.

This is why, much to Moore's chagrin, doctrine is so important. Hermeneutics are important. Theology is important. We can all use the exact same words but be coming from completely different approaches. Words have meaning, and those meanings are best understood in context. As much as we talk about understanding the Bible in context, we need to understand our teachers in context as well -- not just the sermons we take their pithy quotes from, but their teaching overall.

John MacArthur is someone I've listened to for years and am familiar with his teaching. So when MacArthur says, "Watch out for scoffers," I know it's coming from a sound doctrinal base (2 Peter 3:3). When Beth Moore says, "Watch out for scoffers," I know it doesn't. Again, both teachers are using the same words, but they have different meanings.

I'm not terribly concerned with Piper's and Chandler's hearts in reposting the Moore/Giglio/Voskamp quote -- even though all three women operate their ministries in biblical disobedience and have their own sets of serious doctrinal problems. When John and Matt read that quote from Moore, they were reading it from their own hermeneutic, not Moore's. It's poor judgment on their part and lacking in discernment. But it doesn't mean we throw Piper and Chandler out with the hypocrites. Take note of it, scratch your head if you must, and move on.

I love both men. We have a couple of their books in our church library under recommended reading: Chandler's Explicit Gospel and Piper's Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die. I appreciate the gospel basics both books offer. As invaluable as these men have been to me over the course of my young adult life, I hope and pray they will be more discerning as to who they're reposting on Twitter and thus giving an endorsement of.

Piper's continued involvement with Passion is becoming a growing blemish on his ministry for a number of reasons I won't get into here. I've defended him to my friends in the past, but it's increasingly difficult to do so the worse Passion is getting. I'm hoping that he will reconsider his participation with the conference and withdraw from future appearances.

Buice was right on point when he said passion without knowledge is deadly (read also his article on why pastors should stop using Beth Moore). We can have even a passion for the Bible but misuse it in such a way that it becomes a danger to us and to others -- mind you, with eternal consequences. Regarding the handling of Paul's letters, Peter warned, "There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16).

There will come a generation of Christians who will set aside the Bible in an attempt to be more like Jesus. But don't think of Moore as being some kind of prophet in that sense. That generation is right now, and Moore is among those teachers we should be watching out for.