Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Great Tension of the Christian Life

Ecclesiastes 7:20
“Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” 

The Christian life is lived in a constant tension. We are both made righteous through faith by God in Jesus Christ, anointed with the Spirit of God for sanctification, and yet we continue to sin. Although we have been regenerated (born again) by the Holy Spirit, the old man of flesh, still beckons us back to the life we once lived in blindness to the great mercies of the Lord. 

Ecclesiastes 7:20 is highly realistic, and also obvious. We can never be perfect in this life. Although we are called by God to put off the old man and to count ourselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ and to cleanse out the leaven in us, we often fail and are torn and sad about the sin we continue to commit. We long for the day when we will be perfected and glorified. Even the Spirit of God in us is groaning for the renewal of our bodies! We see evidence of the great grace of God, but we also see our old man. 
What are we to do with the sin we still commit? The Bible tells us to confess our sins to God. In Psalm 32:5, King David writes, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgression to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” In verse two of the same Psalm, David writes: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
David is not saying that God will “count no iniquity” towards us if we have no deceit in the sense of being perfect (i.e. if we are not liars or thieves or adulterers). He is saying, rather, that the blessed man is one who is not deceitful to himself or to God about the sin that continues to manifest itself in our lives. David fully exposes himself before a loving king, understanding the vileness and stupidity of the sin he still commits. He understands that God sees all things (that he is omnipresent). David understands that to not confess his sin to God would be deceitful indeed, for in reality, not confessing our sin is the same as saying to God that we no longer commit sin, that there is no longer a problem.

The gospel of Jesus Christ frees us from unrealistic views of ourselves. Instead of trying our best to look perfect before the eyes of our neighbors and friends and family, we are free to look at ourselves in the most realistic way: As saints who still sin. God knew we would struggle! If he knew this and still loved us by sending his Son, then we no longer have to put on a show for others to protect our sorry dignities. The gospel frees us to lay everything bare before God. Christ is our new and only true dignity! And we must confess our sins: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

God’s righteous judgment on the world would be terrible for us without a relief from God’s holy anger. Without the terrible cost that Jesus paid as he drank the dregs of God’s wrath for us on the cross, all would be lost. No man can stand before God and live. If God would count iniquities, who could stand before him? In verse 7 of Psalm 32, David writes, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.” Indeed, Christ is the sinner’s hiding place! Because of his steadfast love for you, you no longer have to hide from God as Adam did in the garden. You can come into the Holy of Holies, to God’s throne, boldly and humbly, and confess that you are a saint who continues to sin, in constant need of God’s refreshing grace. Confess your sins to God today, and be glad in the Lord that you can be counted righteous (while even yet a sinner) because of Christ. Be glad that God justifies the wicked. Be glad that he will cast your sins as far as the East is from the West. Relish in the fact that if your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart and knows all things! Treasure this God, who says that if you do sin, you have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous! 

Assurance From Our Good Works? Mmhmm!

Do we gain assurance from our works?

If you’re Reformed, that answer should be a resounding yes! But it is perhaps not what we would quite expect. Lord’s Day 32, Q. and A. 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, “And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits.”

And so, though it might feel quite an anti-protestant thing to say, the fruits that spring up in a believer’s life are an assurance to him of his salvation. Notice, I did not say they are the salvation. They are simply an assurance.

1 John 2:3 says, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.

There are two types of knowledge spoken of in this verse. The first “know” is one of assurance. By this we can be sure. We can know truly.

The second “know” is one of relationship. We could paraphrase the verse this way: “By this we can be sure that we have come into a relationship with him.” And the answer John gives for us being sure that we are in a relationship with Jesus Christ is if we keep his commandments.

Don’t misunderstand. John is not talking about perfectionism. Just read the first chapter of 1 John if you think he is. John is neither saying that we are saved by good works, for “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

And that is precisely the key. Christ’s love for us causes us to love, and so the assurance found in our love stems from the fact that Christ loved us. 

False faith is the one that does not love. True faith is the one that grasps the promises found in Jesus Christ (forgiveness of sins, adoption, favor, redemption, righteousness etc.), and that true faith works through love, as Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

You see, if your faith works through love, you can be confident that you belong to Christ. One of the things that shows us someone has a false faith is if there is no love.

Prior to understanding what true Christianity was about, I only wanted to debate and argue the truths of Scripture, but not truly glory in them. There was little relishing in that the fact that these truths truly meant something, for myself and for others. 

Do you have a desire to see others come to Christ? Do you desire that God’s truth be accepted and loved by many people? Or would you just rather have it that you be right and others be wrong? Are you only desiring to win an argument? Or is your desire that other people come and understand the amazing works that God has done? This is perhaps the difference. True faith bursts forth in loving action, whereas false faith does not.

It was Jesus who said in Matthew 7:17-18, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.

Has there been good fruit in your life? Have you shown a desire to worship? Have you shown a love for others coming to knowledge of the truth?

Often people are wary (especially Lutherans!) of saying that we can have assurance from our works. But ask yourself, would we be doing good works were it not for Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf?

We are not boasting in ourselves when we say that we can have assurance from good works. For these works come from the power of Christ at work in us through the Spirit that he sent after going to the Father. No, we never boast in ourselves. But believers should see Christ working through them, and should as Paul said, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

You see? As God works in us, pushes us, grows us in grace, we WORK. But we do so with a reverent spirit towards God, understanding the one who has bestowed us with his grace. And what amazing grace that is! Grace that purchased us when we were sinners. Grace that gave us pure vestments, the rich robes of Christ's righteousness.

To be sure, there is a working out of a false faith. People try as hard as they can to please God, and look fantastic both morally and outwardly. Just think of the rich young ruler.

But the fact of the matter is, true faith works from the knowledge that God is already pleased with us in Jesus Christ. True faith says, “How can I please my Lord who bought me with his precious blood?” True faith receives Jesus Christ, rests in him because Christ made him right with God, and then runs to please his master.

As 1 Peter 1:8 states, there is a very real possibility that we can become “ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We dare not abuse the free grace of our Lord in a cheap manner. The grace of God is certainly free, but it is never cheap. Rather, true faith soaks, saturates, and plunges itself in the restoring grace of God and runs forth in works of obedience. For true faith believes that “his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2).

It is not the amount of works you see in your life, however. Have you seen any longing in your life for spiritual things? Have you found in yourself a desire to please your Lord? Have you seen the Spirit work in your life so that others around you know that you are, in fact, different? Have you loved another person and wanted them to understand the indescribable gift of Jesus Christ? Have you wanted them to believe in him and be free from all of their sin and misery? Have you desired that people understand the truths which the Bible speaks of? Do you yourself love the Lord and want to serve him, even if they are meager and half-hearted efforts?

Then take heart. The Bible says that you can take assurance from the good fruit that you see in your life. The good fruit of a true desire to follow after Christ, a hungering for his gospel, and a hungering after others tasting that same sweetness of which you have partaken. A hungering to love the Lord who bought you. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

No Works = No Salvation

As a Reformed Christian I heartily believe that I am made right with God “by faith alone” (Sola Fide) and “in Christ alone” (Sola Christus). This means that I am made right with God NOT by my obedience to his law. I’m made right with God NOT by my own efforts or pursuit of holiness. This is because, since Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). Except for Christ.

Because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” we must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). So we Reformed types call being made right with God the doctrine of Justification. A simple way to remember what Justification means is that in Christ God looks at me “just as if I’d never sinned.” This is a fairly simplistic explanation, but it does the trick.

Justification comes as a gift of God’s grace.

But works fit in somewhere, right?


Not in our being made right before God. When we talk about Justification, the only works we can talk about are the works of Christ, because he is the only one who was truly righteous, blameless, and perfect before his Father. Not us. Christ. Not you. Him.

But there is more to salvation than simply being made right with God. There is also the work of the Spirit, applying Christ’s power in our lives in order to sanctify us. It is here that we can talk about works. You see, over the broad spectrum of salvation, works are necessary.

But necessary in what sense?

As the ground of salvation? No, for we have already covered that the ground of salvation is only through Justification.

It seems to me that Paul gives a very specific reason about why we are to obey God. It is because we have been united to Christ in his death. And we have been united to Christ in his resurrection.

Paul explains this all in Romans. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

Christ died to make us right with God (Justification), and he died in order that our body of sin might be brought to nothing (Sanctification).

How can our body of sin be brought to nothing? Through a vital union with Christ and his death (in his death, we died) and resurrection (in his resurrection, we also were raised). This was all for the point that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

So works show the evidence of the Spirit’s work of applying Christ’s benefits to us.

I think perhaps it is easier to believe that Christ died for our justification, whereas believing in the Spirit’s work of daily sanctifying us is a bit harder.

But just as we must believe that we are justified by Christ alone, we must also believe in the power of the Spirit’s work in our lives for sanctification! “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Did you see that? It’s because we are under GRACE!

We see that a sermon on sanctification can be just as Christ-centered as a sermon on Justification, for it is through Christ that we are both justified and sanctified. Remember, Paul said that sin WILL HAVE NO DOMINION OVER YOU. Do you believe that?

The fact is that God DOES make demands of us. We are now “slaves of righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:19).

We have been made Sons and Daughters of the Great King. As Christians made right in the sight of God through Christ, we can’t forget that God takes a claim over our entire lives. This is why Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who calls you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:14-15).

What a thing it is to be called a child of God! The need for Peter to write these commands shows that we are NOT perfect yet. In fact, “we are his WORKMANSHIP, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  The fact that we are God’s chiseling block means that he’s still sanctifying us.

But Peter’s words hardly imply that there is no hope for deeper and deeper growth in holiness (which his command implies!). I often hear Christians talk about how sinful they are. And with no doubt this is very true. We are all very sinful still. But Sanctification is not about basking in how bad we are. You are not more sanctified because you always talk about how terrible you are.

I hear Christians say, “I can’t be kind.” “I can’t stop.” I can’t be more loving.” “I’m not this.” “I’m not that.”

And I fear this severely undercuts our trust in God’s provision to make us holy. It undercuts the New Covenant that God promised in the Old Testament, which dealt with the forgiveness of sins (Jeremiah 31:34) and God giving us new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). You CAN count yourself as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11)! Because in Christ, you are! Do you believe that?

Justification doesn’t lead to moral sloppiness if we really understand it. It’s actually the grounding of a life that pleases God, and makes us ready and willing to serve him. Justification logically precedes sanctification. We can’t begin to serve God until we have been made right with God. But both justification and sanctification are under the umbrella of our salvation.

So are works necessary for salvation? Yes. Because we have the Spirit. Because we have been united with Christ in his death, and in his resurrection, so that we would walk in newness of life. Works flow from the good root of faith.

If it is God’s will that we be sanctified, and if God’s Spirit, the very Spirit who rose Christ from the dead dwells in us, then certainly we DO HAVE THE POWER to fight against sin, and to show forth the fruits of the Spirit.

We CAN walk in a manner that is pleasing to God.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
“As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable,  not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God;  and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


"This is one reason why the Bible does not present divorce as a solution to marriage problems, though it may be a result. Unrepentant adultery may provide biblical grounds for release from the marriage covenant, but divorce does not solve the problems that led to it. Divorce changes relationships, situations, locations, but it doesn't change the heart. People who use divorce as a solution often repeat the same problems in subsequent relationships because the one thing that needed to change remained unchanged: them! They were blinded by their own now-ism. But if they see their marriage now as a training ground for their marriage then [with Jesus at the marriage supper of the Lamb], the trials God sends their way make perfect sense. As you solve marriage problems with then in view, you won't deal with trouble by separating from your spouse. You will learn how God wants to change you so that you can better live with him or her. Your now response will be shaped by a then perspective."

Paul David Tripp
Instruments in the Redeemers Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change
Page 242

Friday, December 6, 2013

4 Pros and Cons of (religious) Christmas Music

4 Pros:

1. We are reminded of the wonder of the incarnation.

"Jesus to Thee be all glory given,
Word of the Father,
Now in Flesh appearing."

2. We are reminded that the incarnation fulfills biblical prophecy.

"Lo, how a rose e're blooming,
from tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
as those of old hath sung."

3. We are reminded that Christianity is a dramatic story.

"While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
"Fear not," said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds;
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind."

4. We are reminded of the historical basis of Christianity. This one is obvious, but important. The nature of religious Christmas songs presents historical events.

4 Cons:

1. Religious Christmas music smacks of speculation.

"The cattle are lowing,
the baby awakes,
but little Lord Jesus,
no crying he makes."

2. Religious Christmas music often gets the story wrong.

"We three kings of orient are..."

We don't know if there were three kings. Also, the wise men weren't there the night Jesus was born.

3. Religious Christmas music can be dreadfully sappy.

"Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long awaited Holy Stranger
Make yourself at home
Please make yourself at home."      
4. Religious Christmas music tends toward emotionalism.

"Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace."

"I have traveled many moonless nights,
Cold and weary with a babe inside,
And i wonder what I've done.
Holy father you have come,
And chosen me now to carry your son."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Marriage IS for you!

There has been an article going around online which says that marriage is primarily about your spouse. When you get married you are to seek their happiness. Marriage isn't for you, it says. Marriage is about them.

Then, there's this second article from a different blog which responds to the first. 

The second article is better because it says that the purpose of marriage is to make the other person more holy. And, I agree, that is one aspect of marriage. Christ is going to present the church to himself without blemish, and so husbands and wives should strive to sanctify each other to become more Christlike. But it seems to leave out another very human element to marriage. A very hedonistic element. 

Both articles agree that marriage is not about making yourself happy. But I don't agree. 

When we examine Ephesians 5:28-29, we see something amazing happening. 

“He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church…”

John Piper, in his book Desiring God, wrote a section on marriage that completely renovated my thoughts concerning happiness in the union between a man and wife. I don’t have the book in my possession at this time, so I will try to remember some of the things he said.

The gist was that in loving my wife I love myself. In seeking her good, I am seeking my good. Since she is my own flesh, in her happiness I find mine. In loving her I love myself. This is exactly what Paul says, "He who loves and cherishes his wife loves himself." 

Therefore, be a hedonist and love yourself in your marriage. Remember that yourself isn't just you, but you and your wife as one body. 

It seems many marriages fail because the one flesh of the two spouses is malnourished. The husband selfishly seeks what he thinks will bring him joy to the detriment of his wife's needs, and the wife does the same. In seeking the temporary joy, he is actually crushing hope of a lasting joy gained through loving and cherishing his wife. In serving your wife, you are bringing peace and happiness to the one body. Why would one purposefully under nourish his own body? Christ has not done that with the church. Why would we do it with our own body, our spouse?

When one considers the profound impact of hedonism in marriage, we don't find that we put our joy on the back burner in order to serve our spouses. What we find, in fact, is that in loving our spouses, in cherishing and serving our wives as Christ does the church, we are seeking and finding a source of very great peace and happiness and joy. A greater joy than we could have found in self-seeking. Why settle for temporary highs when something better is offered?

So be a hedonist in your marriage. In serving, loving, and cherishing your wife, you are serving loving and cherishing yourself. In seeking her joy, you actually seek yours.

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten that we seek our greatest joy in God. But we do find very real joy in our spouses, which flows from our enjoyment of God. Without him, there is no satisfaction, and only he can free us from the selfishness which plagues us in our relationships. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Do We Hate Authority?

"Our legacy has led us to read authority as authoritarianism, and seriously to be misled in requiring unconditional freedom in every legitimate human act. We bristle at the word authority. That's why often in this chapter I have opted for the words directions, guides, coaches. But we must see that our actual dependence on authority remains.” Esther Lightcap Meek from Longing to Know, page 103

From the beginning of our lives, we are set under authorities. Our parents teach us who we are in regards to position in our family. They feed us, hug us, talk to us, and love us (hopefully). Teachers instruct us in reading, math, science, history, and Bible. We are born under a government which enforces laws and allows for a peaceful life. If we are Christians in a good church we are under the authority of elders and deacons and pastors.

In the same way that our parents and teachers were given wisdom by their parents and teachers and pastors, we are caught under the umbrella of authority whether we like it or not. It is inherent to the human experience of life, and no desire of trying to rid ourselves of authority can work itself out. Considering yourself as the ultimate authority for truth is stupid and naïve and does not fit into our life experience, as we trust a doctor to tell us what’s wrong with us medically, a plumber to know why our pipes are clogged, and a referee to coach a fair basketball game.

So why the problem when it comes to one of the most inherent parts of being human: our religious nature? The question is not so much of authority as whom or what a trustworthy authority is. We have all experienced bad authority in our lives whether it be the Umbridge-like prinicipal on the power trip, the police officer who loves to hand out tickets, the father who rules with an iron fist, or the drug addict mother who cared more about getting high than loving her child.

Really, what we despise is authoritarianism, not authority. We despise bad authority, and we have had so many terrible teachers and authorities in our lives that we become skeptical of any authority at all. In reality, we truly desire to be led. We desire our teachers to be faithful and loving and gracious, and we are drawn to people who show themselves to be trustworthy. We desire fathers who disciplined us, showed us the path of life, and we desired mothers who loved us beyond our sinful tendencies, who nursed us as little children and taught us about Jesus.

I realize that I am less skeptical of authority because I had good parents. Upon hearing someone say recently that women in the church don’t know their Bible’s well enough to train up the younger women I exclaimed, “Ya’ll need to meet my mother!” My father taught me and constrained me to work hard as working for the Lord, and taught me to fight for truth of the gospel no matter who stood in front of you.

Our experience can tell us that some authorities are untrustworthy, but it cannot tell us that all authorities are untrustworthy. As Esther Meek states, “The move to reject authority was warranted but not justified” (103). We all look up to someone.  Whether we like it or not, we trust people who commend themselves to us as trustworthy. Why else would we pay more money for the family doctor we trust and who has seen us grow up, rather than the new doctor who doesn’t know us at all? Why would we go to the barber down the street who knows exactly what haircut we desire and has cut our hair for years, rather than going to a new haircutter who doesn’t know us at all? It’s because we know who the true authorities are and we trust them!

My friend told me recently about a conversation he had with an unbeliever who said that he couldn’t believe in the Bible because the New Testament writers were all about control. Now this is a true and false statement. He meant that the New Testament writers were desirous of controlling people’s lives in a self-centered way. This comes from someone who has obviously not read the New Testament.

The Christian religion is about control in a sense. I’m constrained by the grace of God to love him and know him and enjoy him and glorify him. Control is inherent to our lives as humans: If we want to play basketball, we have rules. If we want to talk to someone we don’t know, there are certain unspoken social rules (i.e. personal bubble or power distance). If we want to drive our car on government roads, there are rules of the road and cops to give you tickets if you break them. In every area of human existence there are rules, certain controls we live by. Do we expect that this is somehow different in regards to religion? Without control, we simply can’t have a semblance of the lives we live.

Now God has shown himself to be utterly trustworthy. He was never broken a promise. Jesus came, lived, died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven. Upon reading the Apostles one sees that their authority is justified because of their proximity to Jesus. I think it is telling that Paul, when writing to Philemon, said that he could command him to release Onesimus on the basis that he was an Apostle. But Paul prefers, he writes, to appeal to Philemon for love’s sake. Why would Paul do that if he were only about control?

I heard the late Christopher Hitchens say once that Christians have good evidence for believing the resurrection, but who cares? A lot of crazy things happen in this world, and it doesn’t mean that Jesus was the son of God.

This statement logically makes sense (a lot of crazy things do happen in the world!), but it cannot be proved scientifically, just as the resurrection of Christ cannot be known or proved scientifically (I mean it is historical but cannot be scientifically verified for us). The question is, is Jesus a trustworthy authority? Are the Apostles writing as men who are trustworthy? And can we trust their message today?

That answer is yes, Jesus and the apostles are trustworthy. Can we know truth in the modernist sense, 100% no doubt about it? Well, human experience is not lived that way, meaning we don’t come to know that way. We don’t believe in historical facts because they are 100% verifiable. They could be lying to us! We believe in things because the facts line up, the evidence shows itself commendable, and our lived experience proves that certain things are true and others are false. We simply have confidence in trustworthy authorities and guides, through whom we come to see the world. Jesus gave us ears to hear his call, and he gave us eyes to see who he truly was (and is).

We believed his call when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Learn from Jesus. He is trustworthy. Have we not found rest for our souls? Have we not been freed from sin’s guilt and power? Have we not found the joy of living in light of Jesus presence and indwelling Holy Spirit? Take him as your authority, over and against all other false authorities who boast arrogance and pride. Muslim’s have no surety, no anchor or trust that they will be saved when they die. “Perhaps Allah will have mercy on me.” Would you trust your parents if they said, “Well, maybe I’ll pick you up from school today. We’ll see.” Or what if they said, “If you get and A today I’ll pick you up from school?” Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have no surety, for they must work for their salvation as well. They believe contra the trustworthy Apostles, that Jesus is a mere man. What an untrustworthy authority must their god be! All other religions are self-made religions. No surety.

But on Christ our surety stands! Jesus (God and man) is the authority that frees us through grace. I trust that God will be true to his promises because he has never been otherwise. He says, “You are forgiven, you are justified” in a similar way that my parents say “I’ll be there for you." But God, king over heaven and earth, tells me I am forgiven to the nth degree, far and above the trustworthiness of my parents. King David trusted God, and God proved through David's life that he was faithful and able to accomplish all his purposes, despite David's sins and failures. And this is how it has always been. With Abraham, with Adam, with Enoch. They believed and God was faithful. The promise of God is inherent in his name “I am who I am.” God will be because he will be. He loves us because he loves us.

Let’s not throw off authority, for “Bad use of authority, we should see, does not entail the rejection of authority, for the rejection of authority is impossible” (103). Let’s place our trust in the most trustworthy authority we can find: God himself. Always true, always faithful. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”

***All references are from Esther Lightcap Meek’s book Longing to Know. The thoughts of this blog post were born and fleshed out of that work.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Six Things I Learned From Dr. Scott Swanson

My Bible professor at Providence Christian College was Dr. Scott Swanson. These are six important things I learned from him (although this is by no means an exhaustive list).

      1.      Sanctification is as important as justification. At the same time, the two doctrines cannot be conflated or we lose the basis of our salvation (justification) and the basis of working out our salvation with fear and trembling (sanctification). Because of justification we have a right standing with God (we are “accounted righteous”), and the fuel for our sanctification is the new birth in the Spirit. When we get to heaven, the only reason we are there is because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, but this in no way makes us antinomians. Jesus saved us for good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. These works are not optional, but neither do they add anything to our right standing with God. Our justification and sanctification are both works of God in our hearts. There is a logical order to the two doctrines (justification comes before sanctification), but they are both necessary for the Christian.

      2.      When Paul talks about the ‘mystery’ of the gospel (i.e. Ephesians 3:4,6), it is meant in the sense of ‘secret’. The Greek word μυστήριον should be conveyed as ‘secret’ because the gospel was kept hidden in the Old Testament (in types, antitypes and shadows) and then set forth in the fullness of time in the New Testament teaching of the Apostles. The gospel “…has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God…” (Romans 16:26). As Dr. Swanson wrote to me recently, the better translation of the Greek word as ‘secret’ is “…full of implications for our exegesis and theology.  First of all, we thus see that the point being made has nothing to do with "mysteriousness," but rather in fact that this amazing content of the gospel and God's redemptive plan is revealed/made known to us.  And also of course, it warrants for us finding this plan in the OT, where it lay in some sense hidden until the revelation in the NT (thus especially the Rom. 16 passage, which specifies that through the apostolic teaching/preaching, this message is now being made known from the OT prophets).

      3.      We cannot take an English cognate of a Koine Greek word and assume the English meaning back into it. For example, it is popular for pastors to say that the Greek word  δύναμις (meaning ‘power’ in the Greek) is where we get the English word dynamite. Therefore, when Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel “…for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16, emphasis mine), many pastors will say that the gospel is the dynamite of God. The obvious problem is that we have taken our English word and read back in a meaning that was never in the mind of Paul. We can be sure Paul did not know what dynamite was!

      4.      The meaning of Romans 8:1-4 can be defended as either talking about our justification or sanctification. If one pays close attention to the context and flow of the passage, we find that it is actually talking about our sanctification. The key to this understanding is verse 4, which talks about the righteous requirement of the law being fulfilled in us. Since justification is extra nos, that is, outside of us and not based on any change in us, then Paul must be referring to sanctification. In verse 3, when it says that Jesus condemned sin in the flesh, it means God did what the law could not do. The law actually aroused sin in us and could not make us obey. By God sending Christ in the flesh he killed the power of sin  in us so that we can achieve real victory over sin in our lives, and actually begin to obey God’s law (albeit not perfectly). Because we are in the Spirit, the implication of the passage is that we can now submit to God’s law (although we do not rely on the Spirit perfectly). This reading of Romans 8 has profound implications for our obedience to God.

      5.      The church has three purposes. The worship and praise of God, the nurture of believers, and evangelism. You can see the problem if one of the latter two purposes is set higher than the others. In churches where only the nurture of believers is focused on, you have a church not worried or caring about the lost, and not fulfilling Jesus’ own purpose of coming to seek and to save that which was lost. If you set evangelism as the goal over and above the nurture of believers, then you have a whole church that is satisfied on milk, and not on true gospel and spiritual meat, not growing in the knowledge of God and his ways.

      6.      The hermeneutical spiral means that as we learn things about Scripture, we are constantly correcting our presuppositions about the world. It also means that as we learn about and find truth in the world, we are constantly correcting our faulty views of Scripture. This allows us not to make the same mistakes the church made in thinking that everything in the solar system revolved around planet earth, contra the findings of Galileo who said (rightly) that the earth actually revolved around the sun. We are called to find truth in both general and specific revelation, because Jesus is Lord of every square inch. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

How Much Did Paul Really Know About Jesus?

It is popular to say today that Paul knew very little about Jesus Christ of Nazareth. According to an article on, Paul knew only about eight things.  According to the Bible, however, Paul knew quite a lot about Jesus. Paul Barnett, in his book Paul Missionary of Jesus, comes up with a more biblically thoughtful and extensive list. This is the list from his book and can be found on pages 18-20.

Paul Knew:

1.  Jesus was a descendent of Abraham the patriarch (Gal. 3:16).

2. Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. This is critical to the belief that he was the     Christ, the Messiah of Israel (Rom. 1:3; 9:5; 15:8; cf. 1 Cor 15:3).

3. The mention of Jesus being “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4-5) suggests that Paul knew of and confirmed the virginal conception of Jesus… Jesus was born of a woman, Mary, not of her husband Joseph.

4. Jesus was born and liven in “poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).

5. Jesus was “born under” the and lived under Jewish law (Gal 4:4).

6. Jesus had a brother named James and other brothers, unnamed (Gal 1:19; cf. 1 Cor. 9:5).

7. Jesus had twelve disciples, to whom the risen Lord “appeared” (1 Cor 15:5; cf. Mark 3:14 pars.).

8. Peter was the spokesmen of the Twelve… a role that developed, postresurrection, into his leadership of the mission to the circumcised in Israel (Gal 2:7-8).

9. Jesus’ manner was one of humility and weakness, agreeing with his words recorded in the Gospel, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (2 Cor 10:1; Matt 11:29).

10. He was externally “transfigured” on a mountain (Mark 9:2; Matt 17:2), as Paul expects to be “transformed” inwardly (2 Cor 3:18; cf. Rom 12:2).

11. Jesus called God “abba” (Gal 4:6; cf. Rom 8:15).

12. He ministered primarily to Israel/Jews (Rom 15:8).

13. He instituted a memorial meal on the night he was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23-25).

14. He was cruelly treated at that time (Rom 15:3).

15. He was killed by the Jews in Judea (1 Thess 2:14-15).

16. He testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13).

17. His “death on a cross” (Phil 2:8) implies execution at Roman hands for treason (cf. Gal 3:1; 6:17).

18. He was buried (1 Cor 15:4).

19. He was raised on the third day and was seen alive on a number of occasions by many witnesses, most of whom were still alive, able to confirm this (1 Cor 15:5-7).

So Paul knew a lot about Jesus. We’re in safe hands. Paul met the risen Lord on the way to Damascus and had a basic knowledge of Christ’s life and mission. Of course, he wasn’t one of the Twelve and never claimed to be, so we can’t expect that Paul necessarily knew all of Jesus parables and events of life that the disciples knew. At the same time, because of Paul’s acquaintances with such Apostles as Peter and James, there shouldn’t be doubt that he was filled in on much of it. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Emergent Church (Part 3)

           Authors note: This is the third installment of a four part series on the Emergent Church. To read the first installment, click here.  

           The Emergent churches slippery ideas about propositional truth and theology in process lead to the idea that God is practically unknowable. This is true because for Emergents, any attempt to put God into language is futile. “Since language is inherently ambiguous in its attempts to describe all external, abstract realities, and therefore unable to express unequivocal truth, how can we refer to any truth as absolute” (Tomlinson 102)? Because only God is absolute, words cannot be (Bell 23). Later in Velvet Elvis, Bell writes that language fails because the Christian faith is mysterious, and it is idolatry to put God into words definitively (32). These ideas however did not stop Bell from writing that “God has no shape or form” (23). Is Bell committing idolatry in saying this? Lack of belief in definitive language has not stopped Bell from writing an entire book concerning what he believes the Bible and Christianity are all about (or, rather, what they are not about).  

            Ideology, according to Peter Rollins, is actually idolatry. Ideology is understood as making God conceptually evident (Rollins 12). The Bible is contradictory, fractured, and full of variances (Rollins 13). According to Rollins, the Bible is so vibrant, so dynamic in nature, so full of different genres of writing that it is simply a mixture of different voices that cannot be harmonized. “…any systematic attempt to master the text [is] both violent and irredeemably impossible” (Rollins 13). McLaren, like Rollins, disdains the idea of systematic theology:

“At the heart of the theological project in the late modern world was the assumption that that one could and should reduce all revealed truth into propositions and organize those propositions into an outline that exhaustively contains and serves as the best vehicle for truth” (McLaren 152).

Christian words like omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient are, for McLaren, simply “theological” jargon (152).

          Emergent writers dislike certain words that conservative Protestants use about the Bible; words like inerrancy, objective, and absolute (McLaren 164). The implication of the Bible making no claim of inerrancy about itself, is that it is not inerrant (Tomlinson 110). On the more liberal (for lack of a better term) side of the Emergent conversation, Kester Brewin writes that the Old Testament is about people getting to know God and Israel’s spiritual maturity (62). This is apparently Brewin’s explanation for how the God of the Old Testament can be compassionate, inclusive, and gracious, as well as a God who desires plunder and slaughter (62). It was not God’s problem, but rather the God’s people’s ever growing knowledge of him and their growth in spiritual maturity.

            Throughout church history, theologians have constantly said that God is indeed incomprehensible. God is inexhaustible, the finite cannot encompass his infinity, and he is beyond human imagining.  Isaiah 55:8-9 states,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The Christian is faced with a dilemma. How much can one claim to know about God? Christians are overcome, like David, with God’s loving knowledge of everything they do and exclaim with the Psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139: 6). No Christian can count the thoughts of God: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you” (Psalm 139:17-18). “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3). God’s understanding is beyond measure (Psalm 145:4-5). “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty” (Job 11:7)?

            Taking all these passages into account, one might think that Emergent writers are on to something. Can Christian’s say that they know God with him being so high and far above them? The answer is explicated in Romans 11:33-36 which says:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are   his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

At first glance, this passage seems to reflect what all the other passages were saying above. But one is prompted to ask the question, what led Paul to pen this doxology? The answer lies in all the things that Paul set forth throughout the entire book of Romans before hand, especially the explication of God’s redeeming work to the Gentiles. So what brought Paul to extol the unsearchable riches and wisdom of God was based on what had been revealed to Paul. Elsewhere, Paul refers to this message as the secret of the gospel, or the “[secret] of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). In striking language, Paul says that this “…[secret] was made known to me by revelation…” (Ephesians 3:3 emphasis mine). A secret is something that is kept hidden, but Paul says that it has been made known to him. Apparently this Apostle of Christ is as arrogant as the evangelical Christians who claim that they know the things of God! What is the secret that was made known to Paul? “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). It was Paul’s desire that Christians would, “…have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18). How is this possible? How can one have the strength to know that which is unsearchable and that which surpasses knowledge? Because Christians have been let in on the wonderful plans and secrets of God laid out in Christ Jesus for their salvation!

            Christians have been given the Spirit of God! In another letter of Paul, perhaps something the Emergent writers have missed, Paul says, “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7). “…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). In the next verses, Paul outlines the reasons that Christians can now comprehend the thoughts of God:

For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:11-13).

This is the key the Emergent church has missed. Despite the fact that they love mystery, paradox, and the mystical/poetical, they seem to miss the work of the Spirit who imparts real spiritual wisdom and brings believers into a relationship with God, so that Christians experience him by the Spirit, and so they understand the things given to them by God. Paul clearly spells out that Christians have the Spirit who is given from God, and so understand those things given them by God.       

            The Emergent arguments about language defy God’s immanence, his ever present-ness. If putting God into definitive words equals idolatry, then God himself is idolatrous, for he is the one who told the Moses, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33.19). While Kester Brewin spells out his ideas about humankind’s spiritual maturation, Peter has a different idea about what we can say about the Old Testament prophecies. Though Peter and the other apostles had heard the voice from heaven confirming that Christ was the son of God (another example of God’s use of human language), he says something incredibly striking: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19 emphasis mine). Not only were the Old Testament prophecies useful in confirmation of faith, but they were more sure. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). In direct contradiction to Brewin’s statements that the Old Testament Scriptures are all about mankind’s getting to know God, Peter writes, “…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).

            Words that Protestants use to describe the Bible are simply in relation to who they believe God is, namely inerrant, absolute, and objective. If “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), then certainly it would contain no errors and present objective truth, because what proceeds from God’s mouth can be no less! Evangelicals believe he has the ability to speak in these ways, and that he does so clearly. The logical consequence of saying the Bible is not objective and inerrant is to say that God makes errors, and cannot express himself in objective ways. Are words like omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent really theological jargon, or do they actually express biblical truth? The Bible presents God as everywhere present (Psalm 139:8), as perfect in knowledge (Job 37:16), and as all powerful (Ephesians 1:19).

            Rollins says that any systematic attempt to harmonize the texts is impossible. But ff Rollins cares about the Jesus of the Bible he should care about “it is written” statement.  He should care about the Jesus who used the Bible to defend himself against the temptation by Satan (Matthew 4). He should love the Jesus who said to the disciples on the Emmaus Road:
O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the truth found in the Old Testament. Evangelicals firmly believe that we have received much of this teaching through the writings of the Apostles, indeed, all things necessary for salvation and for the equipping of good works.

            Reformed theologians like Bavinck and Michael Horton have held that all human knowledge of God is analogical, that is, based on analogy. At the same time that they have said this, however, they have also held that that knowledge is not wrong knowledge. All knowledge of God is incomplete, but that does not mean that people do not know truly, just not in totality.