40 Days That Make Sense of the New Testament

Jesus talkingMany know that after he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples to manifest his resurrected glory and commission them for ministry. What is often forgotten is that Luke tells us in Acts 1 that he spent 40 days with his disciples instructing them about the kingdom and preparing them. Because Luke only mentions this in the one verse, we often forget about this dimension of his earthly ministry. Herman Bavinck makes the case, though, that we forget these 40 days at great peril to our ability to make sense of the shape of much of New Testament teaching and preaching:

After he had suffered, he not only presented himself alive with many compelling proofs for forty days but also spoke to them of the things pertaining to his kingdom (Acts 1:3; 10:40–42; 13:31). All too often this instruction that Christ gave to his disciples between his resurrection and ascension is ignored, but it fully deserves our attention. Those who do not take account of it create a large chasm between what Jesus himself taught before his death and what was later preached by his apostles. These men, certainly, linked up with the instruction given by Jesus to his disciples specifically in that forty-day period. Jesus did not appear to his disciples in order from that point on to leave them to their own reflection and reasoning, but in those forty days impressed upon them much more clearly than he could do earlier the significance of his death and resurrection, of his person and work. For before his death and  resurrection, his disciples did not understand him. Over and over they misconstrued his intentions. They would only understand them afterward. But after Jesus died and rose again, appeared to them in another form, and spoke with them about the kingdom of God, they learned more in those forty days than in the three years they had daily associated with him. Only then did they for the first time understand the words he had spoken to them earlier.

Of the greatest significance were the things in which Jesus now further instructed them. They concerned—briefly to mention the most important—the necessity and significance of his suffering (Luke 24:26–27), the explanation of the prophecies of the Old Testament in light of their fulfillment (Luke 24:27; 44–46), the glory and power to which he was now being raised (Matt. 28:18). Additionally, his enduring presence in his church (Matt. 28:20), the equipment of his apostles for the office of their ministry (Mark 16:17–18; Luke 24:48; John 20:21–23), the restoration of Peter (John 21:15–17), the proclamation of the gospel to all peoples (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8), the nature of faith in his name (Mark 16:16; John 20:29), the benefits to be obtained by it (Mark 16:16; Luke 24:27). Finally, the meaning and administration of baptism (Matt. 28:19), the future of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7), the promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5), his own deity (John 20:28), and the full revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt. 28:19).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pg. 444

Though scholars like N.T. Wright have accounted for the apparent differences in emphasis between Jesus’ proclamation in the Gospels and that of the apostles (Kingdom –> Risen King),  when we begin to take seriously the account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection instruction, we can start to appreciate how much the apostles’ teaching was still rooted in the words of their Lord. It’s not that after his Resurrection, the apostles all of a sudden, under the inspiration of the Spirit, had a burst of theological creativity. Jesus himself revealed to them truths they could not see before, and clarified for them the reality of what he had been instructing them in all along. The disciples didn’t just have to sit back and remember “Now what did Jesus mean when he said…” when they were writing the Gospel. Many of the interpretations of Jesus’ ministry as the fulfillment of prophecy were probably taken from Jesus’ own lips as he spent time teaching them about the kingdom of God.

I don’t know about you, but this offers me great encouragement to my faith in the authority of the rest of the New Testament witness. Even without bringing in the strong theology of inspiration I already have, the New Testament is not merely the disciples’ witness to the Risen Christ, but likely the Risen Christ’s own witness to himself.

And on that note, I think I’ll wrap this up and go crack open my Bible. Seems like the right application at this point.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

Head in HandsChristians can be terrible. As a reader of the New Testament, this doesn’t surprise me. One of the major premises of the Christian faith is that humans are so flawed, so broken, so rebellious, and so unable to redeem themselves that the eternal Son had to incarnate himself, live, die, and rise again in order to fix them (Romans 1-8). I suppose what does shock me is that Christians are still surprised when other Christians are terrible.

For instance, every time some news report comes out about a pastoral failure, or a fiasco in Evangelical culture, or abuse in the Church, it’s common to see Christians of various stripes updating and bewailing said fiasco. While that’s fine, and probably necessary to some degree, the one attitude I find myself chafing at rather regularly is the “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian” anymore impulse.

It’s as if this person were introduced to Christianity by having them read bits of Acts, without reading Paul, the Gospels, or heck, even the rest of Acts. As if they were promised a Christianity with nice, cleaned up people, with perfectly cleaned up story arcs where all the sin is “back there” in the past, never to rear its ugly head, so that you don’t have the bear the ignominy of being associated with such foul stupidity and wickedness. Then when they meet real Christians–you know, the sinning kind–they suffer a sort of whiplash on contact.

Well, in order to prevent the kind of whiplash I’m talking about, I’d like to present an incomplete list of sins, wicked behaviors, or assorted troubling phenomena that the New Testament notes happening in the early years–in just 1 Corinthians alone:

  • Arguments about personality cults (ch. 1-4)
  • Lawsuits between believers (ch. 5)
  • Incest, or sexual immorality so gross that even the pagans are shocked (ch. 5-6)
  • Visiting prostitutes, or sexuality that’s basically just pagan (ch. 6)
  • Bizarre confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (ch. 7)
  • Confusion on gender issues in relation to culture (ch. 11)
  • Inequality and pride based on social and economic distinction (ch. 11)
  • People getting drunk at church before communion (ch. 11)
  • Gross spiritual pride related to the gifts (ch. 12-14)
  • Confusion on eschatology and core theological issues like the resurrection of Christ (ch. 15)

How about some other Pauline epistles?

  • Syncretism and mix and match spirituality (Col 1)
  • Legalism and false ascetic restrictions (Col 2; Rom 14)
  • Ethnic particularism and pride (Galatians)
  • Arguments between solid, believing Christians (Phil 4)
  • False teachers perverting doctrine and lying about godly pastors (2 Cor 10)
  • Free-loaders who won’t work, but leach off the community (1-2 Thes)

Honestly, we could just keep going for a while here. These are the kinds of things that the authors of the New Testament, the Apostles who regularly performed miracles and such, had to warn their congregations about.

Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin”, told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class.  In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church. What’s more, apparently these are the kinds of warnings they expected might come in handy for future believers as well, otherwise they wouldn’t be in Scripture (1 Cor 10).

All that said, I suppose I want to say a few things.

First, yes, sin in the life of the believer is many senses shocking. It’s shocking in its flagrance. It’s shocking in its ingratitude towards the Savior. It’s shocking in its resistance to the Holy Spirit who now empowers the believer to a life of obedience. It’s shocking because sin, at core, makes no sense. Yet should it be surprising? Not to anyone who has taken the time to read the New Testament it shouldn’t be.

Second, keep in mind Jesus tends to save all sorts. He saves people from healthy family situations that predisposes them towards basic, moral, sociability that we enjoy. He also saves people out of broken social situations, drugs, prostitution. He saves them out of hyper-religious legalism. He saves them out of sexual addiction and rage. Given all the different pits Jesus manages to drag people out of, don’t be surprised to see varieties of dirt and muck still clinging to them as he sets himself to the slow task of cleaning them up again.

Finally, have a care for your own pride. As Paul says,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Remember where you came from. You weren’t on the spiritual a-team either. You’re still not. And yet you don’t want to be ‘associated’ with those people because you’re name is such a big deal? Paul says to us here, “if your name is anything, it’s only because “in Christ” you have gained wisdom, righteousness, and so forth. It is because holy Jesus was willing to identify himself with what is low, foolish, sinful and broken”–you know, you and I. If you have any great shame, any great disgust at the sin of your fellow believer, make sure it is because you care about his name not yours.

And then praise his Name when you remember he’s willing to share it with all sorts.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I Used To Believe X For Reason Y…” And the Failure of Intellectual Imagination

thinking homerWe seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others. One of the most glaring (and personally annoying) examples of this is on display in many modern “intellectual conversion” narratives. It could be about any issue really, whether politics, or religion, or broader ethical issues. It’s very common to find a thread along the lines of:

“I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful Reason Y.  Reason Y must be only reason to believe position X.”

While it’s the kind of argument you can find in just about any type of conversion article, I see it most often with stories about conversion on the issue of same-sex marriage in the church, or just in the culture at large. It’ll be an article by a post-Evangelical, or someone else, that goes something like:

You know, I used to be like the rest of my coreligionists. I used to hate gays, and was taught that they were worse than anthrax. I was very insecure about the issue because I felt that they threatened my whole way of being. If I admitted they were properly human, or whatever, then, my whole world would collapse. But that was because I’d never actually met one. Now I have and I realize that they’re kind, gentle, loving people. Also, I found out there are books with Christians who say that same-sex relationship are okay according to the Bible. I never heard any of these arguments, but now I have. So, I’ve changed my mind.

Now, I don’t bring this up to settle the issue of same-sex marriage here. (Honestly, if you try to argue about it in more than a tangential way in the comments, I’m simply going to ignore it or delete it. That’s not the point.) Nor am I saying there isn’t a case to be made along those lines. What I am saying is that the move that comes next is simply a failure of intellectual imagination. You see, what often follows is something like:

See, that’s where people are. This is the only place they can be. These are the only reasons that someone could hold the position that I used to hold.

Because they used to be hateful and insecure in their former intellectual position, everybody must be. Because their opinion was held on the basis of flawed, prejudiced reasoning, everybody’s must be. What never seems to occurs to them is that you could hold a moral opposition to same-sex marriage all the while having no lack of personal warmth, goodwill, and so forth towards gay people. Or, that you could read some of that same scholarship and simply disagree on other intellectual grounds. And yet that really is the case. It’s like a child who only used to believe the earth revolved round the sun because his mom told him it was spun about by great strings and wires, but upon discovering that there were no strings and wires, thereby came to believe there were no other reasons to believe such a notion.

Again, this happens in other areas too. There’s many an article on Calvinism or Arminianism that covers the same, familiar steps. “I used to be an Arminian because I thought Calvinists were mean and I’d never read Romans 9. But then I read Romans 9 and met a nice Calvinist.” Or, “I used to be a Calvinist, but then Roger Olson told me about free will and John 3:16. If only people would read John 3:16 and read Roger Olson, nobody would be a Calvinist.”  Of course, these are ridiculously simplified, but you get the point.

This, as I said, is a failure of the intellectual imagination, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and I’d love others to weigh in on), it’s one that seems increasingly common. I will say that I’m fairly sure it has something to do with the narcissism of human experience. The story we know best is our own and our human tendency is to shrink the world to fit our experiences. We take our personal stories, and instead of seeing them as one, particular, unique experience, we expand them out and unjustifiably universalize them. Did you have a bad time in a repressive, stale, and abusive Evangelical church? That must be all of Evangelicalism. Did your belief in God’s sovereignty collapse in the face of tragedy? Everybody’s must.

I suppose this is merely another angle on the problem with the absolutizing of personal experience that Alastair Roberts has brought up before, and serves to reinforce his argument that we maybe need to pump the brakes on how much we press the importance of personal narrative in theologizing. Still, I don’t want to entirely rule out the valid place that our own story has to play in the discovery of truth. My friend Preston had a very thoughtful post yesterday on the idea of midrash in exegesis. Ironically enough, though, it highlighted from a different angle the danger that occurs when we place an overemphasis on our own story as the locus of truth and meaning. By assuming everyone’s intellectual experience must be just like ours, we end up invalidating the intellectual and moral experiences of others that don’t fit our paradigm.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is another reason to prioritize Scripture in our theological reasoning. As Bavinck reminded us, personal confession and experience is inevitably part of our reflections. Still, by focusing our reasoning and reflection on Scripture, we are submitting our own experiences, logics, and so forth, to the only Story or Word, that has any claim to be comprehensive enough to include, correct, and make sense of them all–God’s own.

Well, once again I’ve rambled far longer than I intended. For what it’s worth, don’t be an intellectual narcissist. Before you go extrapolating your own former experiences, thought processes, and prejudices to those who hold positions you used to, stop, have an actual conversation with them. You might be surprised at the results.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Earthquake of the Family (Or, the Silliness of ‘Free Love’)

GK-Chesterton-006In his classic work “What’s Wrong With the World?” Chesterton gives us a nutshell explanation of the two foundational realities that lead to the family–the earthquake of sex, and its natural consequences:

Very few words will suffice for all I have to say about the family itself . I leave alone the speculations about its animal origin and the details of its social reconstruction; I am concerned only with its palpable omnipresence. It is a necessity far mankind; it is (if you like to put it so) a trap for mankind. Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can any one contrive to talk of “free love”; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he “drew an angel down” and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man. The second element that creates the family is that its consequences, though colossal, are gradual; the cigarette produces a baby giant, the song only an infant seraph. Thence arises the necessity for some prolonged system of co– operation; and thence arises the family in its full educational sense.

–Chesterton, G. K. (2012-12-05). The G. K. Chesterton Collection [50 Books] (Kindle Locations 5729-5738). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

CarlTruemanOften-times in modern conversations between Catholics and Protestants, the challenge of the apparent chaos of Protestant interpretive pluralism is wielded against the idea that Scripture is “perspicuous” or clear enough with regard to the issues of salvation and so forth. The idea is that Protestants opened up a Pandora’s box with the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture alone, ultimately, is our final norm for theology. Of course, there’s the usual misunderstanding here that for the early Reformers this didn’t mean ignoring tradition entirely, but even when that is conceded, the point is still raised that Protestants have made a mess of things. It should be obvious given all of our denominations, and all of our theological disputes, that the “clarity” of Scripture isn’t all that clear, and that’s one more reason we need Papal authority, and the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church in order to give us something solid to stand on. It’s one, or the only, check we have against the sort of interpretive anarchy we see in all of our “Well, I feel like this means…” Evangelical Bible studies.

In a review of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which, among other things, argues along these lines, Carl Trueman argues that this line of thought tends to forget one key issue: the perspicuity of Scripture was put forward as a response to the mess of the Medieval papacy:

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Trueman is no rabid Rome-hater, but points these things out in blunt form because he’s:

...simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Of course, none of this is an actual argument for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, or sola scriptura. For that, I’d commend Mark D. Thompson’s fine book A Clear and Present Word.  All that same, these are points ought to be kept in mind the next time the papacy, or the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is presented as an obvious answer to the issue of Protestant interpretive pluralism.

It’s not that obvious.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I used to be a Christian, but…” and the Importance of Questions in Evangelism

Why? Because Seinfeld. That's why.

Why? Because Seinfeld. That’s why.

“Oh, I used to be a Christian. I know all about it.”

“Man, I was raised in church and then saw through it.”

“I’ve studied Christianity, so…”

Ever been talking about the gospel with somebody and heard something like this? It can be intimidating, right? You’re trying to talk about the good news and it turns out they already know about and have rejected it.  I know I’ve been hit with that sense of uncertainty before. In fact, it happened to me just the other day at a coffee shop.

I, once again, somehow managed to end up talking to an avid young philosophy student. Now, in the course of things, he mentions that he was an atheist, but had been raised Christian, gone to a Christian school, studied other religions in college, and was now “kinda bored” with the subject. I thought, “Okay, well, I’ll bite”–because, clearly, you don’t offer the college pastor the unsolicited bit of information that you’re “bored” with religion, if you don’t want to talk about it. So I followed up and asked a question I was curious about, “Hey, so, just to be clear, I’m curious: what do you think the main message of Christianity is? Like, at the descriptive level, what is the main message or ‘good news’ Christianity teaches?”

What followed was a fascinating little pop-explanation of how religion came about through ignorance, fear of the elements, and a need to justify morality. So I asked him again, “So, what’s the main message of Christianity?” And essentially, he boiled it down to morality with the threat of the deity to enforce it. Nothing about grace, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in our place, the forgiveness of sins, the kingdom of God, or anything approaching the message of salvation found in the New Testament.

So then, despite his professed well-researched understanding of Christianity, he actually didn’t know the gospel.

On the Value of Doubting Stories – Reflecting on this the other day, I was reminded of a thought-provoking piece by Alastair Roberts, drawing on philosopher/critical theorist Slavoj Žižek,  in which he suggests that we ought to be a bit more suspicious of our autobiographical stories:

Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

You and I tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time. Sometimes they reflect reality accurately and sometimes they don’t. Actually, often-times they’re half-truths used to make ourselves feel better, smarter, more righteous, and justified in our actions than we really are.

What conclusion does Roberts draw from that? Among others:

We ought to be a lot less indulgent when it comes to personal stories more generally, a lot more alert to the ways that they are most fertile grounds for the deception of ourselves and others, and a lot more prepared to call them into question. Personal stories, while they should not be excluded, should not be treated as ‘sacred’, but subject to testing and judgment.

Now, very quickly, let me say this: I don’t bring this up in order to tell you to ignore, demean, or knee-jerk reject whatever someone says about themselves. Far from it! What I want to do is simply call our attention to the fact that we have reason to slow down, and do a little digging in our conversations about the gospel. With that in mind, I want to suggest two simple lines questions to ask in your conversations about the gospel.

Great book on asking questions. (Click cover for link.)

Great book on asking questions.

1. Ask Them About Their Story – First, legitimately ask them about their story. You’ll find out who they are, or, at least, who they think of themselves to be, which is good in itself. Real love genuinely wants to know people. Also, as you ask questions, you’ll also find out what they actually mean when they say things like, “I used to be a Christian”, or “I studied Christianity.”  Their Christian experience could be anything from a few months in youth group, or getting catechized as a child, or having an emotional experience in a church once, or a long, adult experience in a solid church.

For instance, I remember talking to one young lady who described herself as formerly Christian. As I asked her about her story, I came to find out she went to the school of a local, barely Christian mega-mega-“church” (and, to be clear, I’m not one who holds mega-churches in contempt), and rejected “Christianity” when a teacher she had respect for was summarily dismissed for budgetary reasons. This wasn’t some long, thoughtful rejection of Christian doctrine, but the angry disappointment of a young teenager with no exposure to the true gospel, in a group of hypocritical adults. With that in mind, the conversation I pursue with her is going to take a very different shape than the adult who has rejected a maturely grasped faith.

2. Ask Them What The Gospel Is – Honestly, this one’s basic, but so important. America is an increasingly post-Christian culture where a large portion of the population, especially younger generations, have little-to-no working knowledge of Christianity. Even in putatively religious communities, this is true. Living in Orange County as I do, I’m around a lot of people who’ve been in or around church, and so it’s very easy in conversations to assume a basic knowledge of the gospel that people don’t actually have. Whether because of poor, moralistic teaching, or just spiritual incomprehension, even some of those who’ve grown up around church their whole lives can’t tell you what the message of Jesus is.

Returning to my new friend in the coffee shop, by asking him about his own understanding of Christianity, giving him an opportunity to demonstrate he didn’t actually get it, I was given an opening to briefly present and explain the gospel properly, by way of contrast. If I’d have just taken his story at face value, I might have been led down any number of apologetic rabbit-trails without ever actually addressing the fundamental truth at issue. This is important for a number of reasons, but most of all because one of the greatest obstacles to people accepting the good news is never having properly understood it.

Of course, I am not saying everyone who tells you that sort of story is lying, confused, or only rejecting the gospel because they don’t understand it. Some have heard the gospel and have knowingly rejected it. That’s a real situation you’ll come up against. And that’s fine–God works in those situations too. I’d still encourage you to do feel free to do a little digging in your evangelistic encounters. A key question can make a world of difference.

Soli Deo Gloria