What Does the Church’s “Teaching Authority” Mean for Protestants?

Trinity Reading and RevelationProtestants are popularly known as being skittish about talking about the Church’s “teaching authority.” Certainly Evangelicals are. There is a sense that acknowledging the Scriptures as the Word of God and affirming the doctrine of sola Scriptura–that Scripture, not the Magisterium of the Church is the final authority in establishing matters of doctrine–should cause us to turn our noses up, or at least be suspicious of claims for churchly authority. And there’s something to that.

We want to be clear of a few misconceptions of the Church’s teaching authority. For one thing, we want to make sure and remember that the Church is subject to the Word, not the other way around. The Word authorizes the Church, the Church doesn’t authorize the Word. The Church responds to the Word, even recognizes it as the Word, but it does not establish it.  The Church is brought into being by the Word–it is the “creature of the Word” as Luther puts it. Just as God speaks a word at creation and the world comes into being, so God speaks the word of the Gospel and the Church comes into being.

All that I affirm as a Protestant. But that’s not all that we can say about the Church’s teaching authority. It’s not a matter of Magisterium or ‘What this means to me’ in your local small-group. No, many Reformed have recognized that God has given the Church in its broadest and narrower institutional expressions the task of representatively serving Holy Scripture.

Scott Swain, in his smashing little book Trinity, Reading, and Revelation (pp. 102-103) summarizes William Whitaker’s answer to the question of the role of the Church with respect to the Scriptures given in his treatise A Disputation on Holy Scripture. Whitaker notes four roles for the Church:

  1. “First, the church is the witness and guardian of the sacred writings, and discharges, in this respect, as it were the function of a notary.” God has entrusted the Scriptures to the church for safekeeping, to guard and protect them from corruption or harm (cf. Deut 31:9; Rom. 3:2). Again, though, just because Israel was entrusted with the tablets of the covenant, that does not mean they established or authorized the covenant, but they themselves were governed and authorized as God’s people by them.
  2. “The second office of the church is, to distinguish and discern the true, sincere, and genuine scriptures from the spurious, false, and suppositious” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:1-2). The Church, again, doesn’t authorize or establish the canon, but it does recognize it. In other words, the Scriptural texts have their authority before the Church says so, but the Church is given the Spirit of God in order to recognize which texts possess that authority. As Swain says (possibly paraphrasing Whitaker), a goldsmith is trained to recognize gold, but his recognition doesn’t make the gold what it is.
  3. “The third office of the church is to publish, set forth, preach, and promulgate the scriptures; wherein it discharges the function of a herald, who ought to pronounce with a loud voice the decrees and edicts of the king, to omit nothing, and to add nothing of its own” (c. Isa. 40:9; Rom. 10:6; 2 Cor. 5:19). Whitaker’s quote is fairly clear, but the point is, the text of Scripture is supposed to be read, preached, and passed on. That does require a body of people committed to its dissemination and faithful transmission.
  4. “The fourth office of the church is to expound and interpret the scriptures; wherein its function is that of an interpreter. Here it should introduce not fictions of its own, but explain the scriptures by the scriptures” (cf. Mt. 13:52; Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 14:3, 29; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:15). The Church is called to interpret the Scriptures and give their sense, not adding or subtracting, but attempting to humbly and simply explain the Word of God. This happens in all sorts of ways, but especially in the giving of preachers and teachers who take the apostolic message and explain it to the people of God, much as Ezra did the returned exiles.

So then, according to Protestants, what profit is there in the Church understanding the Scriptures? Much in every way!

As Swain says:

…the church is that community created and authorized by the Word of God in order that it might obediently guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret the Word of God. (103)

While Protestants are right to be careful of churchly overreach–claiming a magisterial authority over the Word, as if we ourselves were responsible for making the Word what it is–we rob ourselves if we fail to acknowledge the proper role God has granted his people in regard to the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Swain’s little book has to be one of the tightest, power-packed treatments of Scripture and hermeneutics I’ve read yet. It’s up there with John Webster’s little gem Holy Scripture. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Two Ways of Saying All Religions Are The Same

girardOne of the biggest modernist critiques of religion in general, and Christianity especially, is that despite the claims these religions make for themselves, there’s nothing particularly unique about them. They all have basically the same structure–indeed, most have borrowed them from each other–and all play the same role in basically the same way. And if they’re all the same, why pay attention to just one of them like Christianity? All the mythologies of divine sons, corn-kings, and so forth, are just superstitious attempts to understand the world. There’s nothing exclusively true about the gospel, so just pick something that works and quit going on about it. If we can find a different, “rational” system that plays the same function (eases guilt, explains the cosmos, etc.), then so much the better.

So, the move for the critics, the early modern anthropologists, and scholars of religion with an eye towards unseating Christianity’s intellectual or cultural dominance, was to find as many similarities between all the religions and myths as possible. The move was to pile up as many similarities so that they all blend into a hazy sea of myth. Even to the point of denying, explaining away, or misreading the actual differences that were there staring them in the face.

Nowadays, French anthropologist and literary theorist Rene Girard says that with the onset of the postmodern (so, like, the last 30 years), the tack is much different:

Unlike the old modern critics, postmodern opponents of Christianity don’t try to demonstrate that the Gospels and myths are similar, identical, or interchangeable. Differences don’t trouble them, and in fact they pile up differences with ease. It is rather the resemblances they suppress.

Instead of flattening stories in order to make them all sound the same, postmodern critics approach sameness precisely by playing up the differences between religious stories. How does that work?

If there are only differences between the religions, they make up just one big undifferentiated conglomerate. We can no more say that are true and false than we could say a story by Flaubert or by Maupassant is true or false. To regard one of these works of fiction as more true or false than the other would be absurd.

In other words, the fact that all of these religions are so different points up their falsity rather than their potential truth. Of course works of fiction would be different. They are united under the category of “false” or “equally true”, precisely by their differences. Girard continues to flesh out the appeal of this “doctrine of insignificant differences.”

This doctrine of insignificant differences has seduced the contemporary world. Differences are the object of a veneration more apparent than real. Those who discuss religions give the impression of taking them very seriously, but in reality they don’t attach the least importance to them. They view religions, all the religions, as completely mythical, but each in its own fashion. They praise them all in the same spirit we all praise kindergartners’ “paintings,” which are all masterpieces. The upshot of this attitude is that we are all free to buy what pleases us in the marketplace of religions, or better still to abstain from buying anything. —I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 103

This actually reminds me in a section from the Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in which he deals with various objections to the unique truth of religion. He points out that 20 years ago, most objected that all the religions were equally true. Now, most will point out how uniquely, culturally-conditioned each of them is, in which case they must all be false. Of course, there are a number of problems with this sort of relativism that assumes a very Western, pluralist mindset that forgets its own particular, culturally-conditioned, social location. Still, these two kinds of criticisms point up an interesting theological truth about religion, human nature, and the apologetic task: there are moments when it is appropriate to appeal to both the uniqueness as well as the similarity between Christian doctrine and the truth claims of the philosophies, religions, and myths of the world.

Recently, Daniel Strange has argued in his work on the theology of religion Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, that the relation of Christianity to other faiths is one of “subversive fulfillment.” In other words, the good news of Jesus both criticizes the claims of other systems as well as truly fulfilling their actual spiritual hopes. The reason it can do this is that most religions are rooted in our created-but-fallen nature as worshippers made in the Image of God. Without weighing in on whether these philosophies or religions are actually historical distortions and parodies of the truth of God, all them are rooted in universal concerns, problems, and cares across the whole race. So the religious stories humans have told, the salvations they offered, the moral paths they laid out, will unsurprisingly share some key, though more or less distorted and often inverted, similarities to the actual truth of our plight before God in the world.

There’s a danger in two directions in our apologetic encounters. One is the way of many progressives or liberalizing approaches to theology. Here you can so stress the similarity of Christian truth to every other myth or story, that the uniquely good news of Christ is lost in the (admittedly small) sea of COEXIST bumper stickers in the parking lot of the local Unitarian Universalist parking lot. The other way, though, is that of emphasizing the uniqueness of Christian truth that it is so radically different from any recognizable human concern across cultures that it’s rendered inaccessible to anyone not already singing in the choir. It’s reduced to the level of an inexplicably popular local, tribal faith. That’s the extreme way of putting it, of course, but hopefully that gives a spectrum to work with.

There are, then, (at least) two ways of trying to or accidentally rendering the gospel null and inaccessible: overemphasizing particularity or universality. The fact the matter is that the story of Jesus is both. On the one hand, it speaks to our universal concerns (peace, guilt, shame, social wholeness), and yet, its answer to these problems is unique in its scope, power, and the particular shape we find in the story of God’s gracious redemption accomplished in the Jesus life, death, and resurrection for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Straining Gnats and Siding with Pharaoh Over the Midwives

midwives-1024x563I’d like to quickly conduct a little experiment in our responses as moral readers. Bear with me as I set the stage, though, as this is going somewhere.

Exodus opens with the story of the oppression of God’s people in Egypt. Years after Joseph lead Jacob’s sons into the land to escape the famine, they grew prosperous and multiplied–so much so that the Egyptians began to fear them. So one of the later Pharaohs actually enslaved the populace in order to subjugate and suppress them. In the end, though, the oppression only caused them to expand further. So Pharaoh took it into his head to handle the population crisis in another fashion:

Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exodus 1:15-21 ESV)

So there you have it. Pharaoh’s plan was a limited genocide, but it was initially thwarted by the efforts of two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah–named slaves against a nameless king.

Here’s my question: who’s the hero of the story? Or, rather, who’s the villain? What’s your instinctive answer? In your gut, who provokes your anger? Who do you judge to be of dubious character? Who is being wronged here? Well, obviously, everyone would agree that the Hebrews, in general, were.

But what about the Pharaoh? Are you kind of tempted to see him as a victim? I mean, didn’t the midwives lie to him? Didn’t they deceive him? Weren’t they unethical in the way they misled him about their intention to follow his commands? They actively spread falsehoods about the heartiness of Hebrew women in the birthing process. That’s not just a little fib, now is it? And on top of that, you have to consider that for Pharaoh, slave labor was great for infrastructure. And it’s not like it was the only thing he did, or he was enslaving them just to enslave people.  No, I mean, it probably allowed him to provide grain and other services to the general populace and advance Egyptian society as a whole, right? Beyond that, he was entirely within his legal rights as the Pharaoh. His word was the law of the land.

But none of that really changes the way you read the story, does it? The lying Ziphrah and Puah are clearly the heroes–so much so that God blesses them for their actions. Their mild deception was in the service of life, in the service of justice, of protecting the defenseless and so the God of Israel honors them.

I bring all this up in light of the recent videos surrounding Planned Parenthood’s (PP) alleged sale of “fetal tissue”–the hearts, eyes, livers, and lungs of the unborn and aborted–to medical research facilities. These undercover videos show PP officials discussing these sales with representatives of a dummy corporation set up by the investigative organization looking to expose the practice. The videos range from simple conversations of “less crunchy” techniques of procuring tissue (over lunch), to hearing practitioners admitting that at times infants make it out of the womb intact and are still used to harvest tissue, to hearing one doctor in the middle of a procedure exclaim, “it’s another boy!” It’s truly horrifying stuff that even has presidential candidate Hilary Clinton saying the videos are disturbing.

Of course, the reactions are mixed. Die-hard Planned Parenthood advocates look to defend it as misrepresentation of an entirely legal practice*, pro-lifers are incensed calling to defund the organization**, but in the middle of all of these predictable reactions, though, there is this third group that puzzles me most: the Christian/Evangelical purist. I’ve seen it a number of times now, but you get this middling response where someone will say, “Guys, I don’t like abortion either, but we really shouldn’t have to lie about stuff like these fanatics. We’re Christians, guys. I mean, lying to Planned Parenthood representatives is kind of low.”

And here’s where I just want to say, if your first instinct when you watch or read about these videos is to think, “Geez, are you telling me they lied to get the footage of these people sorting through these fetal parts, or discussing prices non-chalantly over lunch? Woof. That’s a bridge too far”, then you’re reading the story wrong.

I don’t know what’s motivating it in various cases. Maybe it’s a desire for some progressives to not be identified with those pro-lifers. If that’s the case, then maybe your identity as a not-your-parents-kind-of-Evangelical is just a little too important to you. Or, maybe it is a genuine discomfort with the act of lying. If that’s the case, then I’d urge you to consider the fact that Scripture does give different moral weight to issues in the Law.

When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees’ hardness of heart, he denounced them as blind guides:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

He launches into them for being so particular about smaller matters–which are fine to care about–but in their case it was at the coast of missing the broader issues of the justice of the Law. Let me put it this way: watching these videos and being more uncomfortable with the investigators and quick to denounce them than PP is like watching a police video of a man being beaten mercilessly by an out-of-line officer and asking, “Well, did he jay-walk or not?”

Be careful that you’re not swallowing moral camels in your attempt to strain the gnats.

And finally, for those of you nodding you head vigorously to all this on the more conservative side–watch your own heart on other issues where gnat-straining becomes a temptation. None of us–and I definitely include myself in this–is above this danger. Pray for humility toward your brothers and sisters. But most of all, in this time, pray for justice and clarity for the American people so that we may come one day closer to the day when the phrase “it’s another boy” is only uttered in the delivery room, not the Planned Parenthood office.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Accepting money for the tissues to cover cost does appear to be an entirely legal practice. That said, killing fetus/babies who are born intact, as the fourth video seems to admit, or possibly performing partial birth abortions, and so forth, is not. That, at least, merits investigation. Beyond that, there is serious evidence pointing to possible profit on the part of many PP affiliates that, again, at least merits investigation.

**I know that the organization does other services that can be helpful for certain communities, so I do think there needs to be conversations about replacing its infrastructures, or simply repurposing the organization. Christians need to be–and I think many are–prepared to not only expose evil but be part of the loving solution to the systemic and social structures that make it seem tragically necessary to so many poor souls.

The Big Questions of the Gospel in a Five-Verse Nutshell


questions
I’m a big fan of serious study of the Bible. That often involves learning languages, delving into the historical background of the text, and studying what church teachers in history have said about the subject. But it usually starts with reading slowly and asking a series of basic questions. Nothing has reinforced this for me as much as my small group study this year at church.

At our very last study a couple of weeks ago, we were wrapping up our study in the letter of Paul to Titus when we came to this stunning little passage:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

(Titus 3:3-7)

This is one of the best nutshells of the gospel I’ve ever seen. It answers briefly and powerfully all the key questions you might want to ask about the message of salvation.

1. What are we being saved from? Well, Paul says that we were wandering in foolish disobedience. We were slaves to passions and pleasures, unable to give ourselves to anything but our own lesser wants and desires. We were lost, having drifted from true North as we turned from worshipping God to the things God made. Not only that, we were caught up in malice and envy, as idolatry usually sets you at odds with other idolaters. Lack of peace with God leads to war with others.

2. Who saves us? In a phrase, “God our Savior.” Make note of that–God is the author of our salvation, no one else. Salvation is an absolutely theocentric reality, and, looking at the sweep of the text, a trinitarian one. God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all at work in the one sending, appearing, and renewing work of the one God.

3. When did he save us? When his goodness and loving kindness appeared. But what does that mean? I’d gloss that phrase indicating the reality of the incarnation of the Son–the appearing of the kindness of God. It is in the Christ-event–the life, death, and resurrection of the Godman–that God became our Savior. (Indeed, it’s important to note the way that Paul gives both God and Christ the title “our Savior.”)

4. Why did he save us? Here we come to the question of “why”, not in the sense of goal, but in the sense of basis or grounds. Well, Paul is very clear that it wasn’t because of our own works done by us out of our goodness. We didn’t have any of those. There’s no thought of meriting or earning God’s kindness allowed here. No, the sole grounds of our salvation is not found in the creature, but in God himself, because of his own mercy. Salvation is God’s idea, not ours. It’s an act of “grace”–a gift to those who can’t procure it for themselves by their own efforts.

5. How did he save us? Okay, so this raise the question of “how”? How did the Triune One save us? Well, that answer requires the whole NT witness to expound, but here Paul tells us that it’s by the regenerating (rebirthing) work of God in us through the Holy Spirit who cleanses us. The Holy Spirit remakes us, cleanses our sin, our consciences, and creates in us a new heart in communion with God. It’s important to note, though, that we have this Spirit because he was poured out in our lives through Jesus Christ. And I’d argue that the rest of Paul’s theology tells us that’s because of Jesus legal work in his death for sin and his authority to pour out the Spirit he was give in the resurrection and ascension. We are “justified by his grace.”

6. What did he save us for? Finally, we come to the question of purpose. What’s the point? What’s the goal? Where is all this amazing work headed? Paul is very clear: God saved us so that we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. We were saved so that we might become “heirs”, sons and daughters in God’s household who can expect the riches of his kingdom now and forever. What’s more, as heirs, he created us for holiness and glory. Heirs not only receive gifts, but the call (and in this case the guarantee) to carry on the family name–the bear the name of God well. This happens as we receive the Spirit who conforms us to the Image of the Son who brings glory to the Father in all that he does. It is his image that we will finally bear upon that last day.

And this, in a nutshell, is Paul’s answer to the key questions of salvation. All in about five verses. It is passages like this that make me marvel, not only at the great salvation of our God, but the marvelous saving revelation of God we have in the Scriptures.

Soli Deo Gloria

Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

StoningThere are a number of laws in the Torah that, when you just look at them cold, strike us as rather outlandish, harsh, and even bizarre. You know, the kind that usually get trotted out in the middle of apologetic debates about the morality of the Bible, or the Old Testament law. For instance, that bit in Numbers 15 about stoning someone for moving a few sticks on the Sabbath. That strikes us initially rather harsh and it is, but as I’ve written before, I think there are some significant considerations at the contextual, historical, and theological level that can shed some light on the text.

I was reminded of another such text this last week when my pastor was preaching out of Hosea, in a passage referring to Israel as a rebellious son. He chose to highlight and contrast that with the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Now at this point, the usual response is, “Really? I’m supposed to believe that God wants me to take little Joey outside and stone him for talking back and not taking out the trash when I tell him to? That’s a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?” Well, yes, taken baldly, it does seem like a bit of an extreme regime of parental discipline. But once again, I think there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, mitigate some of the seemingly inexplicable barbarism of the text.

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

Instruction. Well, first of all, a number of commentators note that there is no record of this punishment ever having been administered in Ancient Israel. In fact, OT scholar Duane Christensen draws attention to the explicit logic of the law as being handed down so that if it ever came to it, “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.

A Son, but a Man. Second, pushing beyond that, we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The “son” in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase, experimenting with heavy music and so forth. This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” What does that mean? Well, scholar Paul Copan says the scenario involved was something like this:

The son, probably a firstborn,  would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. –Is God a Moral Monster, pg. 91

More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.

Families and Social Authority. What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart. We must not forget that honoring father and mother is one of the 10 foundational commands that form the charter for Ancient Israel’s relationship with God as a nation. Historically, commentators have found in this command not only the foundations of familial relations, but the structure of human political authority in general.

Again, Christensen comments:

Respect for and obedience to parents were of vital importance in ancient Israel. In the Book of the Covenant, a son who strikes his father or mother, or who curses them, “shall be put to death” (Exod 21:15, 17; cf. also Lev 20:9); and the covenant curses of Deut 27:16 include “anyone who dishonors father or mother.”

So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.

Community Justice. Which brings us to a next point. It is important to note that it is not actually the parents who condemn or stone in the man, nor even the father alone. No, we are told that both mother and father, who have presumably reached their wit’s end, are to bring it to the leaders of the community at the gate (the court of the local village), in order for the community as a whole to evaluate and render judgment about the situation. It also bears noting that the mother’s inclusion in the process serves as something of a surprising disruption of our expectations of a patriarchal society. This is not the pure patria potestas of the Romans. This wasn’t, then, some hasty act of parental vindictiveness, but one of justice administered by the proper civil authorities.

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

One final note, though, to round out our consideration of the text. As Christians, we cannot claim to have fully examined it unless we set it in the broader context of Jesus’ own story. Remember, Israel had been created and called by God to be his faithful firstborn son (Exod. 4:22), who served him and represented him among the nations. But Israel proved false, a drunkard and a glutton, worse, an idolater and a murderer who had spurned God’s fatherly hand, rejecting his rebuke, and returning all of his good with vile ingratitude (Hos. 11).

Now, along comes Jesus, the pure, perfectly obedient True Son bringing the Kingdom of God, playing his role as the New Israel and what do they accuse him of being? A “glutton and an drunk” and a friend of tax collectors and sinner (Matt. 11:19). And what happens to him? The execution the law prescribes for the disobedient Son, death outside the gates.

In fact, it’s even worse. Paul reminds us that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13)

The text Paul quotes comes in the section in Deuteronomy right after the text on the disobedient son:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:22-24)

In effect, we see that Jesus, the faithful Son, bears the curse and punishment of God that the unfaithful son Israel deserved, in its place. He does so that in “Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Rounding it Out

Now, after all this, you still might find the law harsh, and that’s quite understandable. I do think there’s been some historical progression from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, certainly a radical shift in implementation (I’m not a theonomist by a long shot), and the impact of Christian social thought on our moral sensibilities in the administration of criminal justice.

That said, I think with considerations like these in place, we can begin to understand the moral core to even this initially shocking text in its own Ancient Near Eastern context. What’s more, along with the concerns I outlined in the case of Numbers 15, we begin to see the way it provides some of the dark backdrop against which we understand the bright light of the gospel of the faithful Son who goes to the cross in place of a rebellious people, so they might receive the Spirit who makes them true sons. As Paul says again,

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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Soli Deo Gloria

He Who Has Ears Let Him Hear (A Parable for Preachers)

Jesus talkingEvery preacher who’s been at it long enough knows that there are some sermons, or even series as a whole, that end up showing more fruit in your own life than that of your hearers. It’s as if God set you up to preach this to bless your people, mostly indirectly, through its effects in your own life than the particular lessons they learn from you in that time. I don’t know if that was exactly what was going on, but the first summer I preached through the parables, it certainly felt that way.

I had been at my job for about a year at that point, had maybe sixty or so sermons under my belt, a cycle of seasons, and the first taste of ministry growth I’d ever seen. We’d had bit of a spurt throughout the spring and with summer beginning we had old students coming home, new students showing up, and everything was shaping up to be a smoother summer. Two hitches, though.

First, we did this odd thing where we would run our mid-week program in the park all summer so we could BBQ, play frisbee, and take advantage of the weather. The downside is that I had to preach open-air with a ton of random distractions (dogs, babies, random flocks of–no joke–squawking parrots).

Second, I was still struggling with the fact I just couldn’t seem to get through to some students. I mean, some understood, they were growing, plugging in, maturing, but others just couldn’t get a handle on what I was preaching. It didn’t matter whether I’d grab coffee with them, prayed a ton for them by name all week, tailor my talks to hit at specific issues they were struggling with, or whatever, if I looked at their corner during my sermon, it would just turn up blank stares, distracted giggles, and an apparently total lack of fruit throughout the rest of the week. I mean, it’s not even just that they weren’t listening. It’s that in the conversations I had with them later, it was clear that many of them simply didn’t understand what I was saying week in and week out. I was pitching gospel and they were still catching law–or something else entirely.

That’s when God sent me the parable of the sower or the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

Fairly rigorous young man that I was, I picked the beginning of my series carefully. I figured I’d open up with the parable about how to understand the parables, as Jesus speaks to the crowds about his own mission to re-sow the people of Israel through the preaching of the Word, the seed. Of course,  interpreting the parable can be difficult and possibly discouraging. We need to understand that the varying responses of the four soils are not intended as an example of Christ-centered statistics (Barna Headline: Only 1 in 4 Hearers will Positively Respond to the Gospel!). In fact, it’s something of an invitation on the part of Jesus to “be careful how you hear”–take these things with an open and honest heart so that you might bear fruit (Luke 8:15).

All the same, as a young preacher struggling with my understanding of the power of the Word, my own ability to preach it, immaturity, self-condemnation, and, likely, sinful impatience, I needed to reflect on Jesus’ words, “He who has ears let him hear.” Really?

I mean, this was Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of God. Easily the greatest preacher to ever walk the plane. Author and deliverer of the most famous sermon of all time (Matt. 5-7). Not merely a bringer of the word of God, but the Word of God made flesh, proclaimed to the world in concreto. There’s no possibility about the “lack of unction” for the one who brought forth in the womb by the power of the Spirit, or the lack of “prayer life of the preacher” in the one who possessed an eternal communion with the Father.  And here he is talking about people missing it. People whose hearts are so hard the seed never penetrates. People who show quick signs of life, but then quickly fade away. People who seem to have real faith, but who allow themselves to get choked by the cares of the world.

And this was their response to Jesus?

And that was when I had to take a breath, step back, and put my own ministry in context. Whether because of youthful arrogance, or that early (or later) tendency to try to justify your own existence through your preaching and pastoring, I realized I was treating the things of God as something fundamentally within my power. I was operating under the unspoken assumption that it was my words which would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give hearts of flesh to those with rocks in their chest. And if it wasn’t happening, it was just clearly something wrong with me and my ministry.

But that’s simply false. If Jesus himself said there was going to be a mixed response to his preaching, why was I under the impression that I was going to have a better batting average than the Son of God? It was ludicrous.

Please don’t hear this as a deterministic shut-down of preachers who endeavor to preach with skill, prayer, and energy. No doubt there was serious room for improvement in my preparation, prayer, and ministry practice at the time (as there still is). Pastors, you can get better, preach clearer, pray deeper, and hope for greater grace in your ministry. Certainly it’s foolish to avoid those things. Still, for all that, there is a place for remembering that, though we do speak as one who preaches “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

For myself, that summer I learned a couple of lessons I had to continually dwell on from there-on out. First, there is a comfort in those words for preachers to understand that not every hard heart in the pews remains so because of your failure as a pastor. Not every blank stare is reflection of your powers as an orator. Not every patch of dirt stays dry because you’re no good as a sower. If you believe that, you’re just setting yourself up for discouragement and self-doubt, both qualities which, ironically enough, will rob you of power in the pulpit.

Second, flowing from this, it gave me confidence to just preach regardless of the “perceived” effects. Of course you have to be aware of your people. Good preachers are students of the Word and students of their people. Still, looking at Jesus’ parable, you can’t gauge these things week by week anyways. There are plenty of false positives as well as slow growing seeds for your to be measuring your efficacy that way. the more I learn(ed) to stop judging my sermons by the reactions I thought could or couldn’t see, the more I focused on simply trusting God to do his work with the best I had to offer up every week. As I did that, my confidence in God’s backing grew as did my own clarity.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave wind things down here. I pray other young preachers might take encouragement from these reflections as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Can We Be Angry at Prodigals? The Frustrated Compassion of Jesus (TGC)

Recently, while reading Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son, I began to reflect on the character of the father. Preaching on this parable tends to highlight the father’s loving welcome, his compassion and grace upon both sons, his willingness to come out to greet both sons at great cost in terms of social shame and dishonor, and his great joy at receiving the lost son. This is right and good. But I think it’s worth considering Luke 15:20:

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.

We often focus on the fact the son was a long way off when the father saw him. The father was sitting there, waiting, hoping for his wandering son to come home. The welcoming heart precedes the prodigal’s repentance. Long before you ever thought to come back, God was there, waiting to run to you. So with our own prodigals, we wait with open arms, ready to receive with joy all who come in repentance seeking grace.

But what is the father allowed to feel in the meantime? There’s danger in reading too much into a parable beyond the plot as it’s developed, or delving deeply into the psyches of characters whose existence spans about 20 verses. Still, it says in the text the father saw him and then he “felt compassion,” moved to action.

What did the father feel before he saw the son coming home? Can we imagine him frustrated and angry? Are we to suppose during the months, or even years, the prodigal is away the father is only and solely feeling a mild, welcoming compassion? Is there no place for a holy frustration at destructive choices he sees his beloved child making? Is there no place for hurt, for grief at the pain of rejection in the midst of his unrelenting love and mercy? Are these feelings allowed for gracious Christians?

You can read the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria