Irenaeus: “God Doesn’t Need Your Obedience–You Do”

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (2nd century C.E. – c. 202) was a stud for many reasons. First off, he was a theological beast. His multi-volume defense of the faith against the Gnostic teachers, Against Heresieswas probably the first real biblical theology in the post-Apostolic period and has deeply influenced Christianity, both East and West, ever since.  Aside from his theological beastliness, he stands out when it comes to faithfulness in ministry, taking up his bishopric right after the last bishop got martyred.

Sometimes I wonder what motivated the faithful obedience of men like Irenaeus–bravely taking up a pastoring job when, basically, the blood of the last guy who took the job was still fresh on the ground. What gave him passion? What gave him courage? What gave him the drive to follow Christ with such radical obedience and faith? It seems like that’s such a harsh demand, something too great for God to ask of anyone. If it were me, I might be tempted to ask, “Why do you need me there anyways? Why are you depending on me? What’s so important to you about my obedience?”

It turns out that Irenaeus probably would’ve rejected the question as confused.He knew something that a lot of us contemporary American Christians don’t: God doesn’t need your obedience–you do. I’ll let him explain:

In the beginning, therefore, did God form Adam, not as if He stood in need of man, but that He might have [some one] upon whom to confer His benefits. For not alone antecedently to Adam, but also before all creation, the Word glorified His Father, remaining in Him; and was Himself glorified by the Father, as He did Himself declare, “Father, glorify Thou Me with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.”(John 17:5) Nor did He stand in need of our service when He ordered us to follow Him; but He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves.

For to follow the Saviour is to be a partaker of salvation, and to follow light is to receive light. But those who are in light do not themselves illumine the light, but are illumined and revealed by it: they do certainly contribute nothing to it, but, receiving the benefit, they are illumined by the light. Thus, also, service [rendered] to God does indeed profit God nothing, nor has God need of human obedience; but He grants to those who follow and serve Him life and incorruption and eternal glory, bestowing benefit upon those who serve [Him], because they do serve Him, and on His followers, because they do follow Him; but does not receive any benefit from them: for He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing. But for this reason does God demand service from men, in order that, since He is good and merciful, He may benefit those who continue in His service. For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God. For this is the glory of man, to continue and remain permanently in God’s service. -Against Heresies, IV.14.1

He says, God doesn’t need anything. I mean, seriously, think about it–he’s GOD. He’s had everything he needed from all of eternity within his own Triune perfection. He didn’t make Adam in order to serve him because he needed anything, but rather, he made Adam to serve him so that he could reward him with good. He says, “follow me” because following him leads to the life he already has in abundance. He continues on:

Wherefore also did the Lord say to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you;” (John 15:16) indicating that they did not glorify Him when they followed Him; but that, in following the Son of God, they were glorified by Him. And again, “I will, that where I am, there they also may be, that they may behold My glory;” (John 17:24). not vainly boasting because of this, but desiring that His disciples should share in His glory: of whom Isaiah also says, “I will bring thy seed from the east, and will gather thee from the west; and I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring My sons from far, and My daughters from the ends of the earth; all, as many as have been called in My name: for in My glory I have prepared, and formed, and made him.” (Isa. 43:5). Inasmuch as then, “wheresoever the carcase is, there shall also the eagles be gathered together,” (Matt. 24:28) we do participate in the glory of the Lord, who has both formed us, and prepared us for this, that, when we are with Him, we may partake of His glory. -ibid.

God wants us to obey him because through obedience, we are conformed more and more to the image of his glorious Son. Jesus is inviting us to glorify God so that we might participate in his own glory. The point is, God doesn’t need our obedience due to some lack in himself (even though he righteously demands it and we owe it to him), but part of why he desires it is so that we might gain from it. He’s like a dad telling you to practice some sport, or some instrument, not because he’s going to personally gain from it so much, but because he knows you will. The glory, the beauty, the greatness that will follow that obedience, that discipline, no matter how difficult, is worth it and it is the aim of our God in his commands to us.

Once again, Ireneaus knew what so many of us don’t: We need our obedience far more than God does.

Soli Deo Gloria

Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

Eventually in any discussion of good exegesis and theological method, the issue of proof-texting will come up. Proof-texting is that time-honored method of biblical interpretation that consists in citing a verse to justify some theological conclusion without any respect for its context or intended use. If you’re nerdy to care enough about this sort of thing, please keep reading. If not, here’s a video of a cute cat.

Now, as I was saying, proof-texting is often brought up in discussions as a prime example of decontextualized readings–readings that irresponsibly ignore the literary and historical setting of the text. As the popular saying goes, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Daniel Treier notes in his article on the “Proof Text” (pp. 622-624) in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible that the charge of “proof-texting” is almost universally negative, and usually aimed at pop-preaching, or increasingly by exegetes at theologians’ handling of texts. Indeed, it’s fairly common to read biblical scholars prattling on in their commentaries about theologians abstractly “theologizing” and “propositionalizing” texts. (Of course, this happens and it shouldn’t and it ought to be called out. Literary and historical contexts must be respected. I’ll just confess I’m annoyed with biblical studies types acting as if attending a Methodist church instead of a Presbyterian one has no effect on their readings, as opposed to those theologians.)

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

In any case, chief among the alleged offenders are the post-Reformation scholastics such as the Westminster Divines (pastors and theologian-types) who wrote the Westminster Confession. Indeed, at first glance the classic confession seems to be a prime example of it. In traditional printings, a quick review of the various chapters will show you very short statements with footnotes listing various single verses allegedly supporting the proposed doctrines. On their own, a number of the verses seem only tenuously connected to the doctrine at hand.

Carl Trueman has an excellent article on the way recent historical work has led to critical re-appraisal of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy and the Post-Reformation scholastics, which, in part, sheds light on their alleged proof-texting:

…the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet [Richard] Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.

So, first off, the Westminster Divines didn’t even want the proof-texts included precisely because they were aware of the dangers of poor exegesis and context-less readings. Second, the texts were supposed to be used as pointers to further research, both of the text, and of the deeper history of interpretation. Basically, they wanted readers to do their homework.

Trueman then uses the example of the “covenant of works” to highlight the way this re-appraisal might shape our judgment about historical, Reformed orthodoxy.

One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.*

Were the Westminster divines proof-texting then? In the sense that they are usually accused of, apparently not. Now, does that mean every reading of every text they cited was absolutely perfect? No, but the giants of Westminster probably deserve more credit than they’re typically given on this point.

If I might suggest two take-aways for contemporary biblical types:

1. When criticizing the hermeneutical approaches of different periods, we need to be careful of rushing to judgment. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in biblical studies knows that the methods are constantly up for debate (form-criticism, redaction-criticism, literary, etc.). Who knows what readings we’ll find silly, mistakenly or not, in 20 years, let alone 200?

2. This also means we probably could take a cue from the Reformed scholastics at this point. They knew that one way of guarding against our interpretations being over-determined by the cultural and literary prejudices of the day, was by being in dialogue, both with the text, and with the history of interpretation. May we humble ourselves enough to do the same. Who knows? We might even want to throw some scholastics into the mix.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For more on the exegetical grounding of the covenant of works, G.K. Beale has some good stuff on the covenant in Gen. 1-3.

Coffee Shop Ministry Revisited (Or, Keller on the Coffee-Shop as City)

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I think I’ve mentioned this already. It all started in college right around the time I began reading Kierkegaard and decided to take up a caffeine addiction. It was new and cool and made me feel older and sophisticated. I eventually got over that, but in grad school I didn’t have an office, so renting space at 2 bucks for, like, however long you wanted to stay wasn’t a bad deal.

Still, after nearly 6 years, a few forests worth of coffee, and getting a job with an office, I find I still spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Why? Well, because coffee-shops are mini-cities within the city. That makes them ideal for ministry.

Keller on the City
Once again, I’ve been reading through Tim Keller’s Center Church on doing Gospel-centered ministry in your city. In it he has a chapter on a biblical theology of the city. He points out that the defining essence of the city in the Bible is “not the population’s size but the density.” See, “A city is a social form in which people physically live in close proximity to one another.” (pg. 135) You didn’t have to have a certain population number to be called a city. Most cities of the day would have been the size of my old high school. The point was that they are condensed clusters of life.

He goes on to point out three characteristics that mark the city in biblical thought (pp 136-138):

  1. Safety and stability – Cities had walls, the beginnings of a legal system, etc. that contributed to social stability and safety.
  2. Diversity – Cities are safer places to live for minorities, and are centers for racial and cultural diversity.
  3. Productivity and Creativity — Human culture and technology flourishes in cities. Greater proximity, and less space between people, means exponential sharing of ideas and resources

Drawing on Jeremiah’s letter to the Exiles in Babylon (Jer. 29), the story of Jonah (Jon. 4), and the movement of the early church (Acts), Keller goes on to makes the case that churches ought to go to the cities for various reasons such as, once again, the sheer population density, as well as the cultural influence the city exerts on the culture. (pp 146-163) Paraphrasing Woody Allen, he says, cities are like everywhere else, only more so.

Coffee-Shop as City
The Starbucks in the Orange Circle near my place is like that. I think most coffee shops are. Think about it. Condensed clusters of life, where the space between people is typically removed is a perfect description of a coffee shop. With all of the students studying, and business types, entrepreneurs, writers, and such hanging out there to get their work done, they are centers of productivity, and idea-sharing. I don’t know about how much safer they are, but there is at times that feeling of safety in numbers at the community tables. Also, finally, they are probably the most diverse spots in any city. Everybody drinks coffee: rich business-owners, soccer-moms, retired types, college kids, and homeless people with spare change. They’re all there.

I’ve realized this is part of why I find coffee-shops ideal for ministry. Coffee shops keep me in touch with people I couldn’t engage with if I just stayed holed up in my office or waiting for them to show up at my bible study. More importantly it puts me in contact with them in the middle of their real life, when they don’t have their church game-face on. I’ve found for myself that even if the conversations I have there don’t lead to somebody showing up at church, or my group, I’m still more likely to teach in a way that engages my own students where they’re actually at.

For ministry types looking to stay culturally-engaged, to go to the city even if you live in the suburbs, I recommend checking out your local coffee shop. Don’t worry about not being a coffee person. Most of them have tea too.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #10: Don’t Get Analogy, Don’t Get God (Michael Horton on the Doctrine of Analogy)

If you’re going to study the doctrine of God, you need to understand the doctrine of analogy. It’s that simple.

Honestly, I’ve become convinced of this over the last few years as I moved from my early days as a Jurgen Moltmann fan to my current Reformedish semi-classicalism. (I have no good term for it. Whatever Kevin Vanhoozer is.) If you haven’t stopped reading already, you might be wondering what the doctrine of analogy is.

The doctrine of analogy is a very old one shared by the post-Reformation scholastics with their medieval forebears like St. Thomas Aquinas. In that sense it’s a very “catholic” teaching, shared across the tradition by Catholics and Protestants of various stripes. (I’m not too sure they’d put it this way, but I think the Eastern Orthodox would be fine with it as well.) Michael Horton laid out one of the cleanest summaries of the doctrine I’ve found in an article on the subject of the Reformed theological method. I’ve already quoted it here, but it’s worth high-lighting again:

“All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.”

Basically, when you’re saying something about God or reading it in the Bible, whether about his being or his emotions, or something else, you have to insert a little qualifier because you’re comparing the transcendent, uncreated one to something created. Kinda like, “God is good (but not exactly the way you think of good)”, or “God is strong (and that is an understatement so serious you don’t have a category for it)”, or “God is angry (but you can’t think of it like sinful human anger)”, or “God repented (but not in the way that implies he didn’t know what he was doing)”. It’s like, but unlike.

Does this mean we can’t know anything about God? No. As Horton points out, God picks out these human analogies, especially in the Scriptures, to tell us something about himself. We just have to be careful when we pick up these analogies to use them and think of them in the way God intends us to, with the reading clues he gives us. For instance, when God is said to be our Father, we have to stop ourselves from immediately filling that word with everything we learned about fatherhood from our own fathers, but rather we must look to the way he is our Father in Christ, or better, the Father of the Son. That’s the kind of Fatherly love we look for, not the imperfect, possibly too lenient (ie. neglectful), or harsh, or whatever loves we find on earth. Again, it’s like, but unlike.

As always, there’s more to it than that, but this is supposed to be a quick-blog.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #9: Tim Keller on 3 Things You Should be Praying for Your Church

This man is praying. Also, he has an amazing beard. Two reasons to imitate him.

So, as I already mentioned, I’ve been working through Tim Keller’s book on Gospel-centered ministry, Center Church. It’s really a must-read for anybody in or even connected to ministry, whether pastors, elders, directors, group leaders, volunteers, admins, etc. I cannot recommend it highly enough. One section that really convicted me last week was in the chapter on Gospel renewal in a church. First off, you should know that Gospel-renewal is “a life-changing recovery of the gospel.” (pg. 54) At the church-wide level it has historically been called a revival. (Think the first Great Awakening–you know, the good one.) Keller lists a few things that contribute to Gospel-renewal in a church including preaching, which is what most of the chapter is dedicated to, but right at the top of the list is “extraordinary prayer.” (pg. 73)

Drawing on the work of C. John Miller, he makes a distinction between “maintenance prayer” and “frontline prayer.” Maintenance prayer is focused on keeping the church going–maintaining what’s happening currently. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not particularly passionate about the mission. By contrast, frontline prayer is focused on the advance of the Gospel, the forceful spread of the Kingdom in human hearts. He lists three particular traits these prayers possess:

  1. A request for grace to confess sins and to humble ourselves
  2. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church and the reaching of the lost
  3. A yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory (pg. 73)

As I mentioned, I was very convicted by this. I mean, I pray for my ministry, for my students, but to be honest it’s mostly been maintenance work. I haven’t been on my knees pleading with the God of heaven that we might be a people humbled, confessing, and passionate to see his glory for a while. I think many could probably relate. In the flow of ministry, prayer doesn’t so much get lost, but squished in between everything else.

Last week I resolved to repent of this and have these three traits mark my prayers. I would encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, or not. If you’re a part of the body, then you’re in ministry. Pray for these traits to mark your church and your church’s prayers–not in a rote, mechanical fashion, but from the heart. You can’t manipulate the Spirit into working for you on command. And remember, he’s the one doing the renewing; Gospel-renewal is a gift of grace. Still, pray boldly. Pray this for your members, your pastors, the congregation, the preaching, the worship, the service, and everything else connected to the church. Pray and look for God to move.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quit Limping–Choose Jesus

Speaking to the spiritual depthlessness with which his contemporaries lived, Thoreau wrote in Walden of the tragedy that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They give in, they resign themselves to life as it is, no adventure, no true life–mere amusements only. Despair becomes a fixed underlying atmosphere of the heart.

The unfortunate reality is that Thoreau’s description could easily be applied to contemporary American Christians with little modification. You see, most of them will live the majority of their lives with a limp.

A limp? What do I mean by that?

Can I just say right now how much I love cheesy, bible drawings? Great times.

Theological Dance-off
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel found in 1 Kings 18. In the ultimate theological showdown Elijah faces off against the false prophets in the Biblical equivalent of a dance-off, pitting YHWH against the false gods of the Canaanites, the Baals introduced by Queen Jezebel, in a literal trial by fire. Elijah would pray to YHWH and the false prophets would pray to the Baals, and whoever’s deity answered with fire to consume the sacrifice offered was the true God.

Aside from the sheer awesomeness of God administering a raw beat-down of a rival deity, what’s going on in the passage? Why did God feel it necessary to display himself in this way? Why set up a contest with non-existent gods? Why all the fireworks? What does he have to prove? Elijah’s question to the people reveals YHWH’s motive:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

See, the Israelites had a limp. Israel, as it often would in its history, had fallen into the worship of false gods. They were turning away from YHWH, the true God, and had begun to give themselves to gods that weren’t really gods, who hadn’t done anything for them, certainly hadn’t saved them, redeemed them out of slavery from Egypt, and wouldn’t be of any use to them in the future. As Elijah put it, they were “limping between two different opinions.” Elijah’s challenge was a call to make up their minds, make a decision and whole-heartedly give themselves over.

Life with a Limp
When you live your life wavering between two different opinions, you live it with a limp. You can never take a solid step–you’re always teetering, unsteady in your choices. It’s like someone who can’t decide whether or not to commit to a relationship. For every little word or date or occasion there’s tons of analysis as to the implications and so firm action is rarely taken. What’s more, the fruits of a decision are not enjoyed either–you get none of the peace of solidly saying nor, and none of the joy of fully being with someone–this is, in fact, what struck me about the passage.

I remember listening to a Matt Chandler sermon where he pointed out that for a lot of Christians, life is lived between sin and God. They’re Christians but their hearts drawn towards sin and so they never fully chase after God and enjoy the fruit of a full relationship with him. At the same time, they’re too scared to chase after sin and at least enjoy it for a while before it destroys them. They enjoy neither and live basically fruitless lives.

No wonder so many of us wonder whether the Gospel is real. We live our lives half-chasing everything else, never fully giving ourselves over to Christ but never quite chasing what we really want either. Our home is in the muddled middle of spiritual mediocrity. Don’t misunderstand me here–I am not talking about being some super-Christian who out-preaches Billy Graham, out-serves Mother Theresa, and makes Ignatius of Loyola look like a spiritual slouch. I am talking about living each day having turned ourselves over to Christ; waking up with his glory and grace at the forefront of our minds, not that job promotion, or my own wants. I am talking about time in Scripture that’s about knowing and communing with Jesus, not a ritual to secure the blessings of all green lights on the way to work. I am talking about a prayer-life focused on the Kingdom, not simply achieving the American dream. I’m talking about a church-life that is more than just showing up for an hour to “get fed” and roll out, but an active involvement in the community of God because we know that’s where life-change happens–in the worshipping community. I’m talking about all of these things and more.

The Choice
The point is you’ll never chase these things if your heart is caught between God and money, God and sex, God and comfort, God and anything else. You will not run. You will not experience the true freedom God has for his children. You will simply limp through life wishing there was something more and bitterly resenting God because you’re too scared to chase it.

The call now is the same as it was then: Quit limping between the LORD or the Baals–choose Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for My Nephew, Jack Emmet Stewart

My sister Valerie and her husband Shawn just had a baby.  Jack Emmet Stewart was born on November 16th at 10:20 pm, weighing in at 8 lbs, 3 oz., 21 1/5 inches long. Jack is my first nephew and a handsome little guy.  Although he was peacefully asleep when I met him, I am convinced he could, if he so chose, destroy Chuck Norris. The awesome contained in this little bundle is hard to gauge at this point.

Now, I’ve been joking around for the last few months about how excited I am to be an uncle–all fun, no responsibilities. Well, not really joking, I meant most of it. Thing is, I’ve been praying for this little guy for a while now and, as the months have progressed, the reality of the responsibility I have towards Jack has started to dawn on me.

One of the first things I figured out I have to do is pray for him. That’s one of my main jobs now—I’m part of the Jack Emmet Stewart Prayer Team. (We are accepting all walk-ons at this point.) So, to kick it off, this is a prayer I’ve written for him:

Father, thank you for Jack Emmet Stewart. We’ve been waiting for him for a little while now. You’ve known about him for an eternity. We’re excited that he’s finally here, safe and sound. We know you have good things in store for him.

I thank you that from the first breath he took, he’s been a testimony to the Gospel. “Jack” means “God is gracious” and it fits—he is an unmerited gift of your kindness. “Emmet” in Hebrew is “truth, faithfulness”, and his arrival is a reminder of the fact that you are true and faithful. I pray that these twin truths would be the rails on which Jack’s life runs: your grace and faithfulness. Let him be ever aware of your loving-kindness, your ever-present help, your deep, deep grace—that you are faithful even when we are faithless.

There are so many things I would ask for him, things I will ask for him when the time comes, but for today I pray that you would bless him with:

Salvation- God, you are his maker, I pray that you would become his Father in Christ; adopt him by your grace. Let him come to repent and believe the Gospel early and deeply, be united by faith to Christ, and given the gift of your Spirit. I pray that someday quite soon he could answer Heidelberg’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the proper answer, from the heart:

“That I am not my own, but I belong– body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven:  in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Father, as much as I love having him as a nephew, I want him as my little brother in Christ. Let this be the reality that forms the core of who he is.

Strength- Jack has strong parents. Shawn and Val are, in their own distinct ways, two of the strongest people I know. It is often over-looked because of their great gentleness, but it is a deep, deep strength that comes from being firmly planted by the streams of your grace. I pray that Jack would be planted by those same streams, drink deeply, and be rooted in such a way that the storms, the tempests, the breezes, the dryness, the spring—all the seasons of life—would leave him unshaken.

Empathy- Let that same strength be a source of strength for others. May it come with the ability to enter into the feelings, the concerns of others without being overwhelmed by them. Bless him that he might be a blessing.

Creativity- Help Jack to see beyond the normal possibilities and fears that constrain most of us from living truly God-soaked lives. Form him by your Spirit into a man whose imagination is governed only by the reaches of your power and goodness. Help him to live in ways that amaze people, glorify you, and give Jack great, great joy.

 Joy- Give Jack a deep, cavernous joy–joy that revels in the beauty of creation, that takes in all that you’ve made and wells up with gratitude for the redemption that you’ve wrought.

Depth- Jack comes from a line of thinkers, let it be so with him. But Father, I ask that he not only have head-knowledge, but heart-knowledge—wisdom that comes from knowing his Father and the character of his Father’s world through Christ.

Assurance- Give Jack a deep assurance about who he is in Christ, the man who you’re making him into, with all of the particular gifts, talents, and personality quirks you’ve written into his spiritual DNA. Let him know down to the marrow of his being that his Creator and Redeemer did not make mistakes with him.

Community- Finally, gather people around Jack—family, friends, neighbors, and most of all the covenant community of the church—who can pour into him, protect him, encourage him, love him, correct him, affirm him, and constantly point him to Jesus.

I ask these things with great faith and anticipation, grateful in advance for what you’re going to do, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Quick-Blog #8 Tim Keller on the Way the Gospel Frees Us to Witness

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book on church, Center Church and it is everything they say it is: amazing, rich, deep, helpful, game-changing, etc. One gem of a chapter so far is chapter 3,”The Gospel Affects Everything”, on the way that the Gospel has deep implications for all of life–it’s not just the “ABCs but the A-Z” of Christianity. In one section Keller takes the time to outline the way that the Gospel gives us a third way to think about various subjects (family, human authority, community, sexuality, etc.) It’s not moralism, nor relativism, but a different thing entirely.

One little chunk in particular chunk that caught my attention was the one about witness. Here’s what he says:

The moralist believes in proselytizing, because “we are right, and they are wrong.” Such an approach is almost always offensive. The relativist/pragmatist approach denies the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. Yet the gospel produces a constellation of traits in us. We are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt. We are freed from the fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others , since we have already received the favor of God by grace. Our dealings with others reflect humility because we know we are saved by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character. We are hopeful of everyone, even the “hard cases,” because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were the people likely to become Christians. we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness (Exod 4:10-12). Together, these traits create not only an excellent neighbor in a multicultural society but also a winsome evangelist. -Center Church, pp 49-50

For Christians looking to be salt and light, witnesses in the culture who don’t downplay the Gospel, or add unnecessary offense to it, Keller points us to the way the Gospel itself is the answer to evangelism–it is the power of salvation unto all who believe, (Rom 1:16) and even changes how we invite people to believe.

Take some time to think through your approach towards witness and evangelism. Ask yourself some questions:

Am I controlled by fear?
Is my approach humbly confident, or nervously arrogant?
Are their people in my life I’ve given up on because they’re “hard cases”?
Am I a good neighbor to those with whom I disagree?

Pray over these and see how God might be calling you to either move out of moralist arrogance, or relativist indifference. Most of all, meditate on the Gospel–let Jesus do the work of turning you into a witness.

Soli Deo Gloria

Have a very Hipster Indy/Metal Christmas (Or, the Spiritual Value of Christmas Music)

I have to confess that historically-speaking I have deplored Christmas music. (ducks) No, really, I just haven’t been the biggest fan. I liked classic Christmas hymns (“What Child is This?” Awesome!), and the occasional Jimmy Eat World song, but otherwise, I pretty much could do without it. Then a few years ago, I noticed that Christmas came and went without much of a fuss in my life. It was kind of just lost in the shuffle of the year. Like, I knew it was important. I probably understood it at a theological/spiritual level better than I ever had (Incarnation of God, Chalcedon, virginal conception v. virgin birth, etc.). Still, the experience of the season, preparing my heart, slowing down, and dwelling on the rich truth of Christmas was not something I’d encountered once I got over the “EHRMAGERD PRESENTS!!!” hysteria of childhood. I was missing something and I knew it. I felt like I’d lost Christmas. (cue Peanuts Christmas special music)

The Decision
In order to rectify this, I decided to listen to Christmas music the next year. Specifically, I decided to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album Songs for Christmas every morning while I did my devotionals from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see what it would do. Kind of an informal Advent practice. I picked this album specifically because:

a. Stevens is a musical genius. His melodic, quirky, indie, whimsical-yet-pathos-filled compositions are not your average Christmas fare. For example:

b. The album has 42 songs which makes it harder to get sick of quickly. (42?! How does that even work?!)

c. Did I mention that Stevens is a musical genius?

It turned out to be a spiritually significant move for me. As I intentionally created space, embraced a disciplined rhythm to reflect on the season through the classic hymns and original compositions by Stevens,  I found myself drawn into a more worshipful awareness of the miracle of Christmas. I found myself longing for Emmanuel to come, to “ransom captive Israel”, and excited about the herald of the angels, proclaiming the birth of the Savior. When Christmas finally came around, I felt ready to welcome it; the month-long, discipline had prepared me. For the first time, I began to see some of the spiritual value of Christmas music.

This year, I’d encourage you do something similar. It’s so easy for the rush, the bustle, the technological hustle of life to keep us so busy we’re unable to reflect on what we’re celebrating: the birth of the Godman, grace incarnate, the reunion of God and humanity in one person. The mystery and the wonder of Christmas isn’t something to scramble past, or merely survive, but rather is something to be entered in, treasured, and cultivated.

If you’re trying to think of where to start, I’d suggest the Stevens’ album already mentioned. Also, here are two more options:

Sufjan Stevens “Silver and Gold” Yes, I know this is another Stevens’ album. No, this is not a mistake. Stevens just followed up his 2006 anthology this year with an even longer album (58 tracks) filled with more classics and something like 18 original compositions. I broke my usual “no Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving” rule just to check it out. Apparently I’m not alone in this as Christ and Pop Culture‘s Jason Morehead writes:

Call me a Grinch, but there’s absolutely no reason for getting into the Christmas spirit when Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened yet (Sorry super mega-department stores with your early Christmas decorations). But I will make an exception when it comes to Sufjan Stevens’ new Christmas offering, Silver & Gold.”

If that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, I don’t know what else to say.

August Burns Red “Sleddin Hill; A Holiday Album” Now, I understand that many of you might like a little more testosterone around the holidays. Being a semi-metal-head myself, I know I have. In the past I’ve mostly found awesome one-song pieces of genius like Becoming the Archetype’s “O Holy Night.” This year another one of my favorite metal acts, August Burns Red, decided to save the day and put out a full album of Christmas music. So maybe this isn’t the most reverent or meditative Christmas album you’ll find this year, but with furiously festive renditions of classics like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Carol of the Bells” this album doesn’t disappoint Christmas-loving metal-heads.

The point is, whether you celebrate in a hipster key, or a metal one, or maybe just some old-fashioned melodies, be sure to include some Christmas music in your life this year–it just might save your Christmas.

Soli Deo Gloria

Assurance in Ascension (Or, Why You Should Be Happy Jesus is in Heaven)

We talked about the ascension of Christ in church today. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I gave any real thought to the doctrine of Christ’s bodily ascension–the fact that after his resurrection Jesus took up a place of honor and power at the right hand of the Father in heaven. It’s not something that gets a lot of attention in contemporary preaching or in publishing, but it’s all over the NT (Luke 24; Acts 1:10-11; John 16:7; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:21-22; Col. 3:1-4; Heb. 9:24; 1 Pet 3:22, etc.) and is a central doctrine of the Christian faith–so much so that it gets a line in the creed: “He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”

This absence is a shame because, in fact, it’s something that we’re told to consider often. Paul instructs the believers in Colossae to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). The command is not a one-time thing because the word “set” or “seek” is in the present, active imperative indicating continuous action–basically he’s saying we should be doing this all the time. Paul wants us constantly considering the reality of Christ’s life at the right hand of the Father. Why? Because through our union with Christ, what is true of him has become true of us. If Christ is risen and ascended, then we are risen and ascended with him. (Eph. 2:4-7)  If we don’t understand this, we’ll miss out on some of the deep assurance that comes from the truth of the Gospel.

While there is far too much to say about Christ’s ascension and current rulership of the universe, the Heidelberg Catechism helpfully gives us 3 benefits of Christ’s ascension to consider:

First, that he is our advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven; (1 John 2:1; Rom.8:34.)

Secondly, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the head, will also take up to himself, us, his members; (John 14:2; John 17:24; John 20:17; Eph.2:6)

Thirdly, that he sends us his Spirit as an earnest, (John 14:16,7; Acts 2:1-4,33; 2 Cor.1:22; 2 Cor.5:5.) by whose power we “seek the things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God, and not things on earth.” (Col.3:1; Phil.3:14)

So, Christ is now in heaven as our advocate, interceding for us, lifting up prayers, presenting himself as evidence, as it were, of his accomplished work on our behalf.  There’s no need to doubt that our salvation is securely accomplished with Christ, seated after passing through heavens. (Heb 4:14; 8:1) Also, since he is there and we are connected to him, we can be assured that one day we too will be seated with him, experiencing the fullness of God’s presence, ruling and reigning as God always intended us to be. He’s there “preparing a place” with the Father for us. (John 14:3)  Finally, Christ has not left us alone, but has given us his Spirit as an “earnest”, a down-payment of the glory to come. And not only that, but as the catechism points out, he himself is the one who helps us to keep our eyes set on the reality of Christ’s ascended life.

Take some time this week to look up those verses; consider Christ, who is your life, risen and ascended. (Col. 3:1-4) When you start to do that, all the petty things, the little things, the “earthly things” that Paul talks about, will start to take on their proper dimensions as your security in him is strengthened and your love for him grows.

Praise the living and Ascended one, our life and our assurance.

Soli Deo Gloria