Preaching A and B (Or, How Preaching is Like Feeding Your Kids Vegetables)

I don't think I was ever this cute--my mom says I was cuter.

I don’t think I was ever this cute–my mom says I was cuter.

I didn’t like eating broccoli as a kid. I don’t think any kid does. In fact, I distrust people who tell me they’ve always liked it. I mean, I’ve made my peace with it over the years–I had freakishly high cholesterol for some reason, so my parents fed it to me almost every night–but you never really like broccoli. That’s why parents usually try to find some way of feeding it to their kids. It’s good for them, but they won’t willingly eat it. It has to be fed to them.

Biblical truth is like that sometimes. There are a number of doctrines that we need to believe for our spiritual health, for us to have a correct view of God, the Gospel, and our lives, that aren’t particular appealing to us given our life-circumstances, intellectual history, etc. This is true not just at a personal level, but also at a cultural level. Certain aspects of biblical truth are just going to be harder to swallow in each culture given the dominant paradigms within them. For instance, in our relativistic-individualist culture teaching about truth and authority won’t be particularly popular. Still, we need to understand the nature of truth and God’s authority or our lives will go off the rails. Or again, the doctrine of God’s judgment is ridiculous, harsh, and arbitrary to the vast majority of Americans and secular Westerners, but it’s a core biblical teaching we need to understand if we are to understand the Gospel of the Cross, the Kingdom, or God’s promised salvation.

So, how do we preach and teach these truths in our culture in a way that they’re received and heard?

Keller on Preaching A and B
KellerPreaching to skeptical Manhattanites Tim Keller’s become a bit of an expert on this sort of thing. In his book Center Church he says that preachers need to be able to distinguish two types of beliefs in our culture: “A” beliefs and “B” beliefs. “A” beliefs are those bits of biblical teaching that people in the culture already hold by common grace. For instance, after a couple thousand years of Christian influence, our Western culture places a premium on forgiveness, or on the notion of human rights, so they readily accept those parts. Still, there are “B” beliefs in the culture, beliefs that function as ‘defeaters’ that make other Christian doctrines seem implausible and problematic as we pointed out above. (pg. 123-125)  You’ll have to do some thinking and research on this because these will change from culture to culture.

Keller says there are two things we need to do once we’ve identified those two sets:

  1. First, we need to make sure and affirm the “A” doctrines. God’s common grace has given people in the culture real wisdom, real truth, and we need to be as positive about them and preach them as forcefully as we can and show them that, in fact, we believe these truths even more strongly. “You believe in human rights? Great! So do we, but even more strongly because of the doctrine of the Image of God.” We do so first because they are scriptural. I mean, we should be talking about forgiveness, the Image of God, and grace anyways. Beyond that though, these ‘A’ doctrines form points of contact with our culture that enable us to gain a hearing within it.
  2. The second thing we need to do is challenge the “B” doctrines that make the Christian faith implausible. We need to engage our hearers to show them that their doubts are rather doubtful, or more problematic than they realize. One of the ways we do this is on the basis of the “A” doctrines we already identified and affirmed. The goal is to show that their “B” beliefs are inconsistent with their “A” beliefs. This is why it’s particularly important to emphasize the “A” doctrines. Keller uses an illustration about trying to make rocks float. Logs float and rocks sink. If you’re going to get rocks and logs across a river, you have to lash the logs together and put the rocks on top and “float” them across. In a sense, the same thing is true with doctrines. Your goal in preaching is to connect the dots between doctrines that people like, their “A” beliefs, to the ones that they’ve rejected on the basis of their faulty “B” beliefs.

Making it Concrete
What does this look like? Well, an “A” belief we’ve already identified is that of human rights. Our culture has a particularly keen sense of the rights and worth of the individual. Despite the abuses and confusion surrounding the issue, I think that’s a good, biblical insight. As we already said, the Image of God gives us good reason for affirming basic human rights. Now, a “B” belief that our culture holds which undermines basic Christian doctrines such as sin, judgment, God’s authority, etc. is the pervading moral relativism that relegates moral judgments to the sphere of mere personal opinion. Our culture strongly assumes that everyone has the right to make their own judgments about what is acceptable behavior, and that no one view can claim to be the “right” one. It’s a matter of individual preference. But “A” and “B” can’t both be true. If you want a robust notion of human rights, you can’t keep your relativism. If you think the Civil Rights movement was a good thing, a right thing, a thing that ought to have happened, not just something that suits your particular fancies, then you can’t consistently be a relativist.

Again, I remember having a conversation with my friend a few years ago on how to preach the difficult doctrine of the wrath of God. In a traditional Reformed fashion he argued that God’s holiness and righteousness require his wrath against evil and that’s generally how he approached it. Now, I think he’s basically right, but still, when it comes to preaching I favor recent approaches like that of Miroslav Volf who argues for it from the reality of God’s love. He points out that most of us will concede God is a God of love, but if God does not have wrath and judgment against the creation-destroying sin we participate in, he can’t truly be love. A God who doesn’t strongly reject and judge that which destroys the objects of his affection, can’t really be said to love them. To have a God of love, you need a God of judgment.

Or again, our culture is currently rediscovering community. We realize that we need each other–we don’t function well as islands. That’s a thoroughly biblical thought, taught over and over again in the Gospel. At the same time, our radical individualism and worship of the autonomy of the sovereign individual makes any idea of standards of belief or practice very distasteful. No one has the right to tell me there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to believe and act that I don’t determine for myself. The problem is that any community, even the most inclusive and anti-authoritarian, if it is to remain stable and safe, needs standards and norms governing its shared life.  If you want community, any kind of community, you’re inevitably going to have to accept norms of belief and practice.

Examples like this abound (cf. Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17 for a biblical model) but to sum up, in preaching and teaching you move to establish “A” because its right, but also because it is your best way of undermining “B”, enabling you to teach counter-intuitive but necessary truths to your people.

Conclusion
This is why preaching is like feeding your kids vegetables. Often-times the only way you can get your kids to eat their vegetables is to feed it to them clothed in other food, or connected to some promised dessert. To many these suggestions might seem like over-pragmatic suggestions to water down the Gospel. They’re not. God’s truth ought to be proclaimed and I’d never ask anybody to not speak the difficult truth. I think it’s perfectly fine to affirm God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice in and of themselves, especially in theological discussion. I’m just saying it’s better to not adopt the “you’re gonna sit there and you won’t eat anything else until you eat these” school of preaching.

The point, as always, is to “preach Christ and him crucified” like Paul, knowing that our words will be foolishness to the Greeks and an offense to the Jews (1 Cor 1-2). At the same time, like Paul, we should care about getting our hearers to listen to us so that they might come to know the beautiful Gospel of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

C.S. Lewis on “Counting the Cost”

Mr. T

Mr. T…just because.

There’s really no point in trying to pick which passage in Lewis’ Mere Christianity is the most helpful or more insightful than any other. Usually they all help with some particular point or question. Still, as I was perusing through it again today I ran across this section towards the end of the book where Lewis is describing the process of sanctification–he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is–and he goes into the subject of the ‘cost of discipleship’. I figured it’s worth a share and it doesn’t really need any commentary:

I find a good many people have been bothered by what I said in the last chapter about Our Lord’s words, “Be ye perfect.” Some people seem to think this means “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you”; and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant “The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.”

Let me explain. When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else.

I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took an ell.

Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of (like masturbation or physical cowardice) or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.

That is why He warned people to “count the cost” before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away.

But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”And yet—this is the other and equally important side of it— this Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, he said, “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”

The practical upshot is this. On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realise from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, ca prevent Him from taking you to that goal.

That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realise that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point. I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not out it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say “I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.” And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble.

But this is the fatal mistake. Of course we never wanted, and never asked, to be made into the sort of creatures He is going to make us into. But the question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us. He is the inventor, we are only the machine. He is the painter, we are only the picture. How should we know what He means us to be like? You see, He has already made us something very different from what we were. Long ago, before we were born, when we were inside our mothers’ bodies, we passed through various stages.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 4.9

For the Love of God Read Your Bible This Year

The title of the blog’s a little cheeky.

On one level I’m quite serious–in order to love God better, it’s a good idea to read your Bible this new year. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading your Bible will silver-bullet style immediately kill sin and light up your heart for Jesus. I mean, the Holy Spirit could do that, but typically not so much. Instead, you might think of it more like a balanced diet or vitamins. Eating one good meal or taking 2 or 3 vitamins won’t help much if 99% of your diet sucks. Still, day after day, week after week, month after month, getting the right nutrients and supplements will improve your health.

bibleIn a somewhat similar fashion, daily engagement with the scriptures, starting with something like just 5-10 minutes a day will, over time, give you a greater appreciation for the story of Bible, knowledge of God, Jesus Christ, your sin, the power of the Spirit, the sweep of salvation, and the Gospel message that saves. And really, that’s what changes your heart, what fills it with love for God in light of who He is and what He has done–the Spirit applying the Gospel of Jesus to your heart as you engage with it. Diving deep into the Gospel, meeting Jesus, is what will save you from the million different ways you try to sinfully save yourself throughout the day (money, sex, power, busyness, etc.). Being daily reminded of his glory, of his patient dealings with Israel, the eternal scope of his love, the suffering and triumphant Savior, the falseness of idols in comparison with his matchless beauty–all of these things are what will, over time, overwhelm sin with love.

Now, many of us know this but we struggle knowing how to go about reading our Bible more each year. We start out thinking we’re going to read it through cover to cover, but right about the time the Israelites are wandering in the desert, dying of thirst, we give up, or wish we could join them. Leviticus seems like it was written as part of the judgment on that first sinful generation.

Part of the problem is that we don’t have a guide, or a good plan to lead us through the wilderness sections of scripture, or even to know what we should be enjoying in its oases. We want to, but we don’t know where to start, and when we start, we don’t know what we’re reading. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. O who will save me from this reading of death?!

Love of GodEnter D.A. Carson
This last year my wife and I went through the first volume of D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God daily devotional based on the Murray M’Cheyne reading program and it’s been great. Robert Murray M’Cheyne designed a daily reading program that, at about 4 chapters a day, gets you through the New Testament and Psalms twice and the Old Testament once in the course of a year. So, for instance, January 1 begins with Genesis 1, Matthew 1, Ezra 1, Acts 1. It goes on from there. Originally the first two columns were labeled “family” intended to be read with the whole family, and the second two columns were “private” for personal devotion. It’s not necessarily the lightest program, but the arrangement is much better than most of the chronological reading programs or even some of the mixed year-long Bible programs.

With Carson’s devotional, you get a about a page of highly-readable biblical, theological, and pastoral commentary on one of the chapters by a top-notch theologian and scholar. Really, I compare the notes you get in this little devotional to the top-level commentaries sometimes and it’s amazing how he is quickly and, in an understandable fashion, making available the best scholarship and then moving to apply it to your daily life. I can’t begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed and personally benefited from both the daily Bible reading and Carson’s commentary. The arrangement of the chapters is helpful because it keeps you going through whole books of the Bible as they were intended to be read, instead of the “open and point” method that lands you reading a random chapter in Zechariah, leading you to think the prophet was on acid. Also, usually at least 2 of the chapters are in non-boring books, so you never have to truck through Leviticus all by itself.

No Sweat
Many of you might be intimidated at the thought of 4 chapters a day. Realize that’s only about 20 minutes total which can be broken up throughout the day if you have to. Still, that’s about 2% of the time you probably spend on facebook in a given day, so you have more time than you think. Also, you may choose to simply go through one book of the daily readings and whatever chapter Carson happens to be commenting on that day. Know that you might might miss a day. Or a week. Or a month. That’s fine, but just get back to it when you remember. When I asked my wife if we wanted to do volume 2 this year she said yes, because even though she didn’t get to it every day, she still had read more of her Bible this year than in any year prior. Sounds good to me.

Finally, if you’re worrying about dropping that 10 bucks on something you haven’t cruised through, or period, then you should know that D.A. Carson’s blog over at the Gospel Coalition is actually just his daily devotion. This last year they’ve been posting through volume 2, so next year will be volume 1 again. So, you can go check it out, or just use the blog as your daily devotional. You can even do it on your computer at work (on your break or lunch, of course).

The point of all of this is, for the love of God, read your Bible this year. It’s worth it and it just became a whole lot easier.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why We Need Christmas

Jesus 3Christmas is about revelation, God coming down and making himself savingly known to us. In one of my all-time favorite articles entitled “Why We Need Jesus” Michael Horton reminds us why this is exactly what we need if we’re ever going to encounter a gracious God:

The Incarnation presents to us the odd truth that the particular is not a shadow of the universal, on a lower rung of creaturely things. Rather, the gospel says the most particular thing—a Jewish rabbi in first-century Palestine—is the universal. And we can’t reason, intuit, or experience our way to this reality; we can only meet it first as history.

We hold to this claim for important reasons. First, our “search for the sacred” is warped by idolatry. God is incomprehensible in his essence: immortal, invisible, eternal, unapproachable Light (1 Tim. 6:15-16), the sight of whose face we cannot survive (Ex. 33:20). God doesn’t contradict reason, but transcends it infinitely (Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33).

If this were all we knew, then we might throw up our hands and conclude with the radical mystics and skeptics that we cannot really know God, at least in a rational way that we can put into words.

However, Scripture tells us more: God stoops to our capacity, accommodating our understanding. We know him according to his works, not his essence. We know that God is merciful, for example, because he has acted mercifully in history and revealed these actions as well as their interpretation through prophets and apostles. We cannot discover God in his hidden essence. And yet, we find him where he has descended to us, in the humility of a feeding trough, a cross, and frail human language.

You can, and should, read the rest of the article here. Not only is it a great article about the mystery of Christmas, but it functions as an introduction to a Reformed doctrine of revelation, as well as Michael Horton’s theology in particular.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Crib Leads to the Cross (Or, the Fathers on the Incarnation and Passion)

At Christmas we celebrate the advent of our Lord, the mystery of Incarnation of the Son of God.  For those of us with a theological bent, it raises a question that theologians have asked for centuries: if not for sin, would the Son have become incarnate anyways? Or, is the Incarnation the central act of salvation or the Passion? Christ’s birth or Christ’s death? Which is logically prior? Obviously they’re both important, but the way you answer this question has implications for other doctrines down the line and there are good arguments on both sides.

Mysterium paschaleCatholic giant Hans Urs Von Balthasar addressed this question in one of the most fascinating atonement theologies of the 20th century, his Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, a meditation on the Triduum Mortis, the three days of Christ’s atonement: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. Honestly, even though I’m not sure I can go for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday, brilliant though it is, most Evangelicals could stand to read his section on Good Friday–it’s worth the price of the book alone.

Before getting to the treatment of the three days, Balthasar argues that the Incarnation is clearly ordered to the Passion and that most attempts to reconcile the two trains of thought are misguided. Yet, the same time, if we look deeply into the Scriptures, the tradition, and the deeper theological logic, we will see that:

…to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables both theories to reach a point where the mind is flooded by the same perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory. (pg. 11)

East and West
Balthasar’s biblical arguments and later theological elucidation are both fascinating and convincing. The section that was most eye-opening for me in reading it a few years ago, was his section on the testimony of the tradition, both East and West on this subject matter.

Typically we are told that in the Orthodox East, a greater emphasis was laid on the Incarnation and that the Passion is accidental within the scheme, while the Latin West has placed a greater emphasis on the death on the Cross and so subordinates the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this is a mischaracterization for “There can surely be no theological assertion in which East and West are so united as the statement that the Incarnation happened for the sake of man’s redemption on the Cross.” (pg. 20) Since this is somewhat uncontroversial of the West, specifically of the East he highlights that in their main theory, “the assuming of an individual taken from humanity as a whole…affects and sanctifies the latter in its totality, except in relation with the entire economy of the divine redemptive work. To ‘take on manhood’ means in fact to assume its concrete destiny with all that entails—suffering, death, hell—in solidarity with every human being.” (ibid.)

The Consensus
He then goes on to substantiate his claim with more citations from the Fathers than I have space to quote here; a number of them in Latin and Greek. I will reproduce only a few:

Athanasius

The Logos, who in himself could not die, accepted a body capable of death, so as to sacrifice it as his own for all.

The passionless Logos bore a body in himself…so as to take upon himself what is ours and offer it in sacrifice…so that the whole man might obtain salvation.

Gregory of Nyssa

If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say, not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.

Hippolytus

To be considered as like ourselves, he took upon him pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.

Hilary

In (all) the rest, the set of the Father’s will already shows itself the virgin, the birth, a body; and after that, a Cross, death, the underworld—our salvation.

Maximus Confessor

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons, logoi, for all these realities. Whoever lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.

Again, I have left out various citations by figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine, and others (pp. 20-22). Still, as Balthasar notes, “These texts show…that the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross as its goal. They make a clean sweep of that widely disseminated myth” that the Greek Fathers, against the Latins, are focused on the Incarnation to the exclusion of the Cross. (pg. 22)

MangerThe Crib leads to the Cross
As interesting of a conclusion as this is for the history of theology, “more profoundly” says Balthasar, “the texts offered here also demonstrate that he who says Incarnation, also says Cross.” (pg. 22) Of course this should come as no surprise. In all these texts the Fathers were only repeating the apostles, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5),  and our Lord himself who said, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)

As we look to the Crib, we must see the Cross in the background—both holding our Savior in his weakness and humility—the peaceful beginning pointing the agonizing end suffered for our sakes; the cries from the cradle foreshadowing the cries from the Cross. This Christmas, as we gather around to celebrate the mystery of Incarnation, we cannot forget the Passion.

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2012

Everybody else is doing one so I figure I will too. I must note that my “Top 5” of 2012 were not all published in 2012—I may just have happened to read them this last year. Also, they appear in no particular order:

  1. A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes – I’ve already reviewed this book here. Read it if you want the run-down.
  2. union with christUnion with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church by J. Todd Billings – Union with Christ is an essential theme and doctrine in Christianity, particularly within the Reformed tradition. In conversation with Augustine, Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, and others, Billings does some serious, but readable theological work, expounding the deep implications for theology and ministry of our union with Christ. For under 200 pages Billings’ scope is wide, covering everything from salvation to theological epistemology, the doctrine of God, Christology, the Lord’s Supper, social justice, and paradigms for mission. It also functions as an excellent, irenic introduction Calvin and the Reformed tradition as a whole. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
  3. Meaning of MarriageThe Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller – What can I say? It’s a Tim Keller book on marriage. That means it’s going to be well-researched, relevant, biblical, practical, theological, very readable, and, of course, gospel-centered. I’ve recommended this book to just about everybody: college students, engaged couples, newly-weds, oldly-weds, pastors, and marital experts. The great thing is that what you learn in this book won’t just teach you about marriage, it will teach you about all of your relationships, and most of all, the way the good news of Jesus Christ really does change everything.
  4. Lord and servantLord and Servant: A Covenant Christology by Michael Scott Horton – While this book was probably one of the most fun for me to read this year, it was also one of the nerdiest. Lord and Servant is the second in Horton’s quadrilogy of dogmatics and maybe the most important. In this series, he sets out to explore various classic theological topics letting the biblical notion of covenant–with its all-important Creator/creature distinction—and the eschatological story-line of the Bible shape the discussion. Much like the others, he’s working with some very high level theological and exegetical tools, interspersing and engaging with contemporary philosophical theology (Radical Orthodoxy), biblical studies (N.T. Wright), and patristics (Irenaeus) with insights from Calvin and the post-Reformation dogmatic tradition. As the subtitle indicates the end-goal of the work is Christology, but Horton does so much more in this volume with significant sections on: the doctrine of God, anthropology, Christology proper, and the contemporary atonement discussion. Horton has some of the finest discussions I’ve seen on the contemporary doctrine of God debates, as well as a thoroughly Reformed proposal for understanding the atonement in its fullness that beautifully incorporates insights from other traditions, as well as from its critics. In fact, the atonement discussion is worth the price of the book alone. Although this is admittedly not easy reading, for anybody with a taste for serious theology, it is a must.
  5. New Testament Biblical TheologyNew Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding the Old Testament in the New by G.K. Beale – It was almost a tie for me between this volume and Beale’s earlier one The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. At a whopping 967 pages of text, excluding indexes, it is hard to convey the truly colossal accomplishment of Beale’s magnum opus. Beale doesn’t set out to write your typical New Testament Theology with summaries of the Pauline corpus, or the Gospels, with a minor constructive chapter at the end. Instead, Beale gives us a truly Biblical theology focusing on the major redemptive-historical storyline of scripture, showing the way the promises in the OT of a New Creation Kingdom are inaugurated and fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only does he trace the fulfillment of the OT storyline in the NT, but he does so in light of Second Temple Jewish background material, and with an eye towards contemporary theological discussions. On top of it all, this stuff preaches!! Pastors, seminarians, biblical scholars, and students would do well to purchase this and work their way slowly through it, page by page. There is a wealth of biblical riches here.
  • Honorable Mention: Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen – Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, Machen aims to set out a clear choice between classic Christianity, the faith essentially shared for 2,000 years across Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox lines, and that of the Modern theological liberalism that was prevailing in his day. I finally hunkered down to read it these last couple of weeks and have been stunned at the relevance this work still has nearly 90 years after it was written. Get this book, if only for the fact that you can download it for free.

So if you’re looking for something to read in the 2013 year, you may want to start with one of these. All of them will faithfully point you to Christ and help you love God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. There are a couple that probably should be on here, but this thing was taking too long so they’ll make next year’s: Tim Keller’s Center Church and Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion.

“I’m Actually a Better Follower of Jesus Than Most Christians…”

buddy Jesus

This is how most Americans imagine Jesus.

I get into conversations with non-traditional believers and skeptics on a decently regular basis and, given what I do for a living, almost inevitably the subject of  Jesus and Christianity comes up. (“So what do you do, Derek?” “Well since you asked…”)

Now depending on who I’m talking to the conversation goes in one or more of a few familiar directions. One fairly common one goes something like: “Well, even though I don’t go to church, or pray, or believe Christian dogma, or do anything particularly religious, I am actually a better follower of Jesus than most Christians because I try to follow more closely to Jesus’ teachings on love, grace, forgiveness, and caring about the poor than they do. So really, I’m like Jesus where it counts most.”

What should we think of this claim?

Well, at one level I’ve no doubt that for many this is true. Christianity teaches that all are created in the Image of God and so, even though the Image might be marred or distorted, I have no trouble recognizing that a good many non-Christians live lives filled with beauty, love, compassion, and decency that probably surpasses my own. Of course, if we’re being honest, I think a lot of the time this protest is made out of a deluded self-righteousness, or as an insecure self-justification. That being said, it’s pretty easy for me to think of a number of very decent, moral, courageous, non-Christian people whose lives may be imitated to great benefit by Christians in their attempt to follow Jesus.

At another level though, this statement is entirely misleading. Once again, J. Gresham Machen points out the main problem with this line of thought:

Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God; imitation of Him may extend and must extend to the sphere of religion as well as to that of ethics. Indeed religion and ethics in Him were never separated; no single element in His life can be understood without reference to His heavenly Father. Jesus was the most religious man who ever lived; He did nothing and said nothing and thought nothing without the thought of God. If His example means anything at all it means that a human life without the conscious presence of God − even though it be a life of humanitarian service outwardly like the ministry of Jesus − is a monstrous perversion. If we would follow truly in Jesus’ steps, we must obey the first commandment as well as the second that is like unto it; we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. -Christianity & Liberalism, pg. 84

See, leaving aside the fact that a great number of the things that Jesus tells us to do are those “religious” things like praying and worshiping with the community, the main problem with this line of thinking is that it rips out the heart of Jesus’ ethics. It focuses mainly on a select group of things that Jesus said to do, but it misses why he says to do them. Machen calls our attention to the fact that the heart of Jesus’ ethics was his religion, the perfect love of the Father, and a desire to glorify him in all things. (Matt 5:16, 48) You can’t read the Sermon on the Mount and escape the constant reference to “the Father” (Matt 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26. 32; 7:11, 21) and the theocentric nature of all of our righteousness. Jesus is remarkably clear that all of his ‘ethics’, his morality, flows from his relationship of loving trust of God; so if you’re truly going to “follow him”, then your obedience has to have a deep love for the Father at the center of it.

The upshot of all this is that simply doing moral things doesn’t mean you’re really following Jesus–his own words rule that out. This should be a sobering thought even for Christians. Far too many of us have God’s glory or God’s delight nowhere on our radar when considering our moral choices. In light of Jesus’ words, both the believer and the non-believer who claims to imitate Jesus, should stop and think, “If the glory of the Father, the love of the Father, is at the heart of what Jesus words and actions, why isn’t it at the heart of mine?”

Soli Deo Gloria