Dating Advice You Actually Need (TGC)

I’ve been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I’ve fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I’ve heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins’ get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they’ve resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.

Realizing that practical steps matter, most often they want tips or steps they can take to build their relationship in Christ. “Should we call each other and pray daily? What about a devotional? Should we buy a devotional and go through it together? Maybe have a weekly Bible study?” If the young man’s of a theological bent, he shows up with a potential 10-week preaching series already outlined. (Protip: this last one is definitely not a winning approach.)

At that point, one of the first things I usually tell them is that there’s really no “biblical theology” of dating tucked away the book of Relationships 4:5-20. There are some rather obvious tips like praying for each other in your daily devotions, encouraging each other to read the Scriptures, setting appropriate boundaries (emotional, spiritual, and so on), and pursuing sexual holiness. But aside from that, there’s no real, hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing.

Still, over the years I’ve come to see that there is one key mark of a maturing relationship centered and continually centering itself on Christ: both of you are absolutely committed to each other’s involvement in the local church.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

After the Disco (Or, Some Augustinian Reflections on a Trip to Vegas)

vegas anniversaryThis last week my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary. By the grace of God we’ve managed, however imperfectly, to honor our vows, love each other, point each other to Christ, share a bank account, learn to clean up beard clippings, and put the clip back on the tortilla chips after using them. While there’s plenty to say about three years of marriage learnings, I’d rather take some time to reflect on our celebration–in Vegas.

Yes, just a couple of days after taking our college students on a retreat to focus on the Holiness of God, my wife and I hopped in my parents’ minivan (which, let me say, has legit acceleration and handling) and headed out to the bright lights of Vegas for a couple of nights relaxation and celebration. And yes, for those wondering, there’s enough non-compromising stuff to do there that even a college pastor and his wife can have a good time. Though, I must confess, we lost $1 in the I Love Lucy slot machine out of principle. In any case, we stayed at the Vdara, in the City Center (thank you Hotwire.com!), which was nice because it was in the middle of everything, but as a non-gaming hotel, was still pretty clean and quiet. All in all, it was a lovely little break after a pretty crazy June.

Of course, even though it was a vacation, in the middle of the pool-sitting, eating, walking around, people-watching, and so forth, I was still me, which means that the theological gears kept churning the whole time. What follows are a few, rough thoughts that popped into my head as we Vegased about.

after the disco 2After the Disco: Visions of the Good Life. One of the lessons repeated over and over by types like James K.A. Smith and Kevin Vanhoozer, is that culture is a force that constantly responds to as well as reshapes our desires. One of the main ways it does that is by holding out a vision, or rather various visions, of the “good life”, the life which is truly life, before our eyes and our hearts. These visions are not so much propositional statements like “sex is the meaning of life”, or “money will fulfill you”, but rather they’re portraits, pictures, narratives, and songs that invite you in, and capture your imagination and the affections of your heart. Intellectually you know that statements of the sort made above are shallow and false, and yet, when presented with ads filled with laughing, beautiful, sensual people, clothed in modern finery, cavorting in exotic place, your heart stammeringly mumbles “I want to go to there.”

I go into all of this simply because if it is anything at all, Vegas is one big, high-octane, cocktail of all our culture’s most popular visions, shaken up, stirred, poured out across a city landscape and then lit on fire.

  • Vegas is Money: Cash gets you luxury, the finest suites, the best food, the nicest drinks, and the best entertainment. If you gamble, it even gets your more money!
  • Vegas is Comfort: You deserve the spas, the pools, the comfy beds, and everything that goes into being pampered and all that goes into really living.
  • Vegas is Sex: Just look on the sidewalk, the billboards, the servers, the ads, the clubs, the shows, the…
  • Vegas is Youth: Go to the pool, look at the ads, and everything tells you, to truly enjoy life, you need to be young.

I could go on and on, but, I’ll be honest, when you’re there, in the middle of the beating heart of it all, it’s easy to find your heart starting to beat in sync with the city.

It was fitting, then, that on the way out there, we turned on Broken Bells’ latest album After the Disco, which ended up being a fun yet reflective soundtrack to much of our time there. The title track “After the Disco” in particular caught my attention, especially this one line: “After your faith has let you down / I know you’ll want to run around /And follow the crowd into the night / But after the disco /All of the shine just faded away.” This is the sordid truth behind all other visions of the good life apart from that of the Kingdom of God: eventually the glitz and the shine fades away. If you’ve given your heart over to drink deeply of these visions, eventually the hangover comes, and nothing looks quite as pretty anymore.

StAugustineUse and Enjoyment. All of which reminded me of St. Augustine. See, while I was out there, I actually did a little theological reading (it was vacation!) and was reminded of a very important distinction in Augustine’s thought between uti and frui:

Augustine distinguishes between the final goal of human life, the enjoyment (frui) of God, and the means we use (uti) in order to arrive at that goal (I, i, 1–iv, 9). All that we do or decide not to do must aim at love of God. Everything else we may use only in order to attain that goal. Augustine employs an image to explain what he means. Exiles who wander outside of their homeland are happy only once they are back in their homeland. They do everything in order to return to that land (I, iv, 8). With humankind it is the same. They wander about outside of God, and they must use everything in this world.

–Maarten Wisse, in Willem J. Van Asselt ed. Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Kindle Locations 973-977).

As I sat there eating a very nice breakfast one morning with my wife, it struck me that this was at the heart of what had been nagging at me all weekend as I looked around. See, although Vegas often holds out distorted versions of the various goods mentioned above, most of those goods themselves aren’t bad inherently. Money used wisely and generously can be a blessing. Sex between a husband and wife can be life-giving and joyous. Youth is a gift with particular joys given to all to be valued alongside Age. Comfort can be, well, comforting after hard work and exertion. To be very clear: my wife and I had a lot fun in Vegas. The food was good, the bed was comfy, and we had a lovely time spending time with each other out on the town.

The problem wasn’t so much with the things themselves, but with the place they’re given. In Augustine’s theology, all of these things are good gifts to be used in order to enjoy God as the giver of these gifts. Instead, if Vegas acknowledges God at all, he is the one to be used to enjoy the various gifts as ends in and of themselves. Actually, that’s the source of the distortions. When Sex is the ultimate good to be enjoyed, you eventually come to the point where its natural use reaches its limit; it was never supposed to be more than a gift pointing beyond itself. But when it becomes ultimate, well then, there are no bounds to be observed in your pursuit of it–you have to wring the juice out in every unlawful, twisted fashion you can imagine.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sex. It’s with anything. If food, or the experience, or comfort, is the ultimate you’re chasing in Vegas, there’s buffets, show upon show upon show, and exclusive spa upon exclusive spa. Incidentally, that’s how they can charge so much–if your coffee is the beginning to your perfect experience, then you’re going to pay the two bucks extra for the exact same cup you get at home.

This is why the lights eventually fade–it never lives up to promise, and the cost eventually takes its toll.

Three shorter observations.

Marriage Changes Things. I felt like marriage changed things for me a bit this time around. Walking around with my wife, my biggest partner in the faith, helped keep the both of us grounded as we saw the beautiful shops and the beautiful people with the beautiful things. Having someone with you who can remind you of the fading and temporal character nature of the things we were enjoying (in the non-Augustinian sense), really makes a difference. I’m not saying that singles can’t go there and have fun without falling into gross sin or something. Still, having the person who most knows your heart, your struggles, your fears, and has your faith in mind can make a world of difference in the way you approach diversion and rest.

People With Stories. That kind of came out as we walked around various shops and restaurants. In one particular case, we sat down for dinner at this hip burger place at the bar (there were no tables available), and had a very lovely time chatting with our bartender. She was a sweet lady, six-months pregnant who talked to us about our marriage, anniversary, time in Vegas, and the blessings of the last few years. It’s easy to forget, everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to run into people with stories and souls who want to be known, loved, and heard. What’s more, even though we didn’t get to share it then and there, opportunities for the Gospel abound–even on vacation.

Stress and True Peace in God. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, though, like my wife and I came off scot-free, using things to enjoy God and loving random strangers for Jesus, as perfect little Christians. Our hearts had to fight off a little Vegas arrhythmia of their own, only in our case, I think we had both temporarily bought into the vision of situational peace. Though everything had been going smoothly enough, there came a moment in the middle of our trip when we realized we weren’t experiencing the peace we thought some time by the pool, maybe a purchase or two, and a nice dinner out were going to provide. Work still loomed. Bodies still ached. The bright lights hadn’t been enough to drown out the dark shadows of certain fears.

So, right there in the middle of the vacation we found ourselves giving it to God and reminding ourselves that He Himself is our peace. Funny enough, it was a little after that we started to enjoy ourselves more freely. Once the expectations of existential peace had been lifted off our vacation, we were to able to receive it for what it was: a good gift pointing to a much greater God. It sounds too picture perfect, but honestly, we enjoyed cheaper food more, laughed easier, stayed out later, and slept deeper that night as Augustine’s exiles, knowing these things were but the tiniest little foretaste of rest to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

Note: The following is a somewhat tentative post. It is offered in a spirit of exploration and invitation to conversation, not as a definitive pronouncement or prescription on the issue.

Just yesterday, in a post on the Future of Protestantism (#protfuture), I raised the issue of what we might term “moral orthodoxy.” In the contemporary Evangelical discussion about sexuality, marriage, and the moral permissibility of same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, one of the big issues that’s been toyed around with is whether or not differing sexual ethics is a “gospel issue” and so forth.

The question has become, “Is rejecting the traditional position with respect to the status of same-sex relationships an issue of orthodoxy? Especially given that it’s not something explicitly referred to in any of the creeds? Is it appropriate to call an Apostolic-, Nicene-, Chalcedon-affirming Christian, who nonetheless changes their mind on this issue heterodox? Or is this more in the adiaphora category? Or maybe it’s not something that will brand you a heretic, but certainly not an Evangelical? Are the creeds sufficient to define the faithful, then?” Or something on that order.

Also, note, before somebody launches off into a tangent, the issue isn’t whether someone is saved, but of the category of seriousness, or the classification of the sort of error (assuming a revisionist position is in error), this happens to be.

Now, to be honest, I find myself sympathizing in both directions. While I would never say that the issue is adiaphora–a departure of this nature is far more serious than that–I initially have trouble reconciling myself to calling a resurrection-affirming, Trinity-praising, even justification-by-faith confessing believer a heretic because of their position on gay marriage. I tend to think heresy is a heavy word to be used mostly with reference to the classic heresies (Arianism, Pelagianism, Doceticsm, etc)–errors with a council condemning it or something.

That said, I do wonder how much of that tends to reflect a rather modern split between theology and ethics. “As long as you get your Christology right, then most of the rest of it we can discuss.” Being more of a dogmatics guy, I’m probably even more bent in that direction. The problem is, I’m not sure I really see that kind of divide countenanced in Scripture. Indeed, thinking of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he moves seamlessly from correcting doctrinal deviancies to ethical ones and drawing a number of connections in between. Chapter 6 ties a tight knot holding the resurrection of the body together with its sexual uses.

Which, as I begin to think of it, reminds me of Alastair Roberts’ suggestion that such a demarcation of creedal sufficiency isn’t really even how creedalism works.

Affirming the Creeds
In a thoughtful post on what it means to be a creedal Christian, Roberts examines what that actually involves. Does being a creedal Christian simply mean that one happens to affirm the content of, say, the 12 articles of the Apostles’ creed as a summary? A lowest, common-denominator of faith? Or is it more than that? Does affirming the creed actually involve posture of humility and commitment towards believing and living within them as norm (normed under the Word of God, of course)? Possibly accepting it as firm yardstick of orthodoxy and so forth? Is there a depth beyond the surface?

Those are leading questions, of course. Roberts answers them quite clearly and suggests that mere affirmation of the words of the creed isn’t really enough. No, indeed, a certain level of adherence to accepted interpretation is involved:

The creed is given to us as a tool by which to discern error and as a form within which to recognize shared truths. Much is implied within the creed that is not explicitly stated. Various theological stances adopted by people who express the creed may be discovered to be unorthodox as their positions are revealed to be contrary to the creed on account of their hidden implications.

Pelagianism isn’t explicitly contrary to, say, any of the big three creeds or definitions I named earlier, and yet the Church later saw that it was in fact deeply destructive to the faith, constituting a fundamental denial of the truth of salvation in Christ. Tied to this point also is the fact that the creeds don’t deal with a number of issues of great importance (creation in the Image of God, etc.)

Finally, and crucially for my point, it must be noted that some can even affirm the creeds verbally while substantially denying them. It’s easily possible to see someone confessing the Apostles Creed while being a Trinity-denying heretic. Actually, in the 4th century there were teachers who held variations of Arianism that still affirmed the first Nicene creed. Their interpretation of the received text is rightly deemed to be a false one, contrary to the content it was designed to protect. So, while affirming Nicaea, they weren’t actually properly Nicene. Therefore, heretics.

The same would hold true today. Someone may come along and claim to affirm Nicaea, and yet reinterpret it–honestly, in good faith–along Arian lines, and we would say, “No, I know you think you’re affirming the creed, but really, you’ve changed it and filled it with new meaning.” It would be a verbal affirmation, but a substantial denial.

So what does this have to do with moral orthodoxy?

The Commandments as a Moral Creed
Well, Roberts goes on to discuss the “sufficiency of the creed”, pointing out that the creeds themselves were never actually designed to function on their own as sufficient to define the faithful apart from the liturgy and the rest of the church’s moral instruction. It’s at this point that the very unremarkable thought occurred to me that, despite the fact that there was no major ecumenical council adopting it as such, Christians have had a basic, unquestioned moral creed we’ve used for 2,000 years–indeed, the Jews for a 1,000 before that–the 10 Commandments.

As far as I can tell from the study of church history, alongside the early baptismal confessions, and the later expanded creeds, the 10 Commandments have functioned as an effective moral creed for the whole of Christendom. Catechism in the early church would have included teaching on the commands (See article links below.) Moving through the Middle Ages on into the catechisms and confessions of the Reformation (Luther’s, Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) all have large sections devoted to them as they were seen as the basic skeleton of Biblical piety and ethics. As I understand it, they’re similarly central for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic catechisms. As Roberts pointed out without quite making this point, the Commandments function as the creed does for the doctrinal storyline, standing as the summary of the rest of Torah, and really, Biblical ethics as a whole. Denying any of them, then, along with being a clear denial of Scripture, would be an unthinkable denial of the core of the faith.

If I’m correct, then it’s just here that Roberts’ comments about the creed become relevant. It’s not that anybody in the revisionist camp actually explicitly denies the 10 Commandments. All but the most extreme liberal fringe would probably be horrified at the suggestion of such a repudiation; there’s no need to impugn motives here. Still, the question is whether or not this constitutes something similar to one of those unintentional, yet ultimately destructive, moves on the order of affirming Nicaea while actually holding beliefs that lean or are Arian. It could very well be that when properly understood there are revisionist positions–not only on same-sex issues, but with respect to premarital sex, divorce, etc.–that constitute a functional denial of the command against adultery as it sums up and embodies the biblical sexual ethic as a whole.

Any revision, then, of the traditional interpretation that has crossed confessional boundaries of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox thought for 20 centuries, if wrong, is not likely to be a mere adiaphora.

This seems like a plausible line of thought to pursue. In fact, I’m quite sure someone already has.

Is There a Middle Category?
All the same, while I’ve floated this suggestion out there for discussion, I still find myself uneasy calling someone a heretic while they still hold the basic theology of the creeds in a fairly conservative form. Perhaps I’m too slow to call a spade a spade. It’s precisely here where I wonder, though, if there is possibly some third category between heresy and adiaphora. I don’t have a fancy name for it, but possibly something along lines of  “really, really, serious theological error.” As in, excommunication probably isn’t fitting for the person who holds this, but then again, neither should you be signing them up to teach Sunday School for the kids.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. I suppose I’m floating the idea that, no, bare-bones creedal affirmation is not enough. But then again, it doesn’t seem to have ever been–the Christian tradition has always said there was a bit more, especially in regards to biblical morality. Nor has that standard been an arbitrary one, but an ethic at the heart of biblical revelation.

As I said, this is all somewhat tentative. I think it makes sense, which is I why I wrote it, but I welcome your gracious corrections, thoughts, and comments. Please do be respectful of each other, though, and pleased don’t be offended if I don’t respond.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update:

1. Interesting post on the possible (non)-use the 10 commandments in early church catechesis. I don’t think it changes the usefulness of the proposal, but still a thing.
2. Post by Brad Littlejohn on Hooker’s distinctions when it comes to adiaphora. Longish, but helpful read.
3. Andrew Fulford has an especially instructive discussion on the difference between essential beliefs and beliefs that one is culpable or not culpable for holding. 

How Can A Blogger Love?

The Triune God simply is love, and it is out of the love that he is that he condescends to save sinners through the obedience of the Son. Unsurprisingly, then, he commands his children who have been adopted and are being transformed into the image of the Son, to love one another (John 15:12).  But what does that love look like?

Paul offers us a punchy little summary at the center of  his extended meditation on love in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.love one another

I got to thinking about this last weekend at our staff retreat during our hour of meditation, and my mind took a strange turn. As I began to reflect on what this would look like concretely in my own life, I started wondering what it would look like specifically in the area of blogging.

What would it look like to blog with love? To approach writing and the entire range of social media practices that accompany it, as an aspect of my Christian discipleship submitted to the loving lordship of Jesus? To undertake blogging in dependence on the Spirit, so that when people look at me, they see glimpses of the love of Jesus?

As an exercise, I wrote some brief, meandering reflections on each phrase in those verses. Since I think I’m not the only one out there who ought to be struggling with that question, I offer them up here:

Patient and Kind- I imagine blogging with patience might include the practice of waiting to write and post. There are times when quick responses are possible, but slowing down to make sure the words we write are true, both in content and form, takes the patience of love–both of people and the cause of truth itself. Given its pairing in the text with kindness, I suspect it likely includes patience with others on the internet. Patience when their writing is mediocre. Patience when their theology needs some tuning up, but they’re clearly on a trajectory. Patience to remember that you were once such as these (and to someone you still are.)

Arrogant or Rude – I don’t have the space to go into the radical change eliminating arrogance and rudeness in our blogging habits would have. It is a common-place that internet culture, even certain wings of Christian blogging culture, is infected with coarseness and a total lack of respect for dialogue partners. The Christian looking to imitate Jesus, to love the way Jesus would, must put aside all false judgments of superiority that lead to the condescension and contempt polluting our posts, tweets, and comments.

Lack of Envy or Boasting – Blogging with love would exclude both envy and boasting.  Initially, that means some of us might write a lot less, given how much is written or posted as a response to the success of others.  Also, we’d be more likely to rejoice when a friend’s article goes viral instead of mourning our own that lies ignored in its respective corner of digital space; when we truly love the way Christ does, the good of our sister is our own good. There’d probably be a lot less humble-bragging as well, and a lot more encouragement of our brothers and sisters who labor alongside of us. What’s more, we’d trumpet our own successes a bit less, and be little more circumspect about re-tweeting all of our positive mentions, in an attempt to build our reputation and platform.

Doesn’t Insist on its Own Way – This one wasn’t as obvious at first. On a surface-level reading it would probably mean listening to my editors with greater humility. While that’s something I probably should do, it seems this has more to do with cutting out the self-serving way we approach our blogging. Our blogging will be less about our self, our name, our platform, our glory, and our self-interest. We don’t have to entirely neglect our own interests, of course, but our object will be to lift up Christ’s name and to forwards the interests, good, and welfare of others in our community. We will write for the common good of others and the church, not merely our own.

Not Irritable and Doesn’t Keep a Record of Wrongs- When we cease to place ourselves at the center of our hearts in our blogging, irritability and resentment will hopefully fade away as well. When I am at the center of my affections, every post I disagree with seems to have been written specifically to annoy me and cross my will. Because of my pride, I find myself writing or commenting out of irritation with a post, or an author, instead of a heart of love. Beyond that, much of the pointless internet drama happens because So & so is still grieved over the critical review Such & such gave his book, would settle down. Or that one time there was the week-long shenanigans over the tweet you swear everyone misinterpreted? Yeah, we’d finally let go of animosities we built up in that battle too.

Does not Rejoice in Wrongdoing, but Rejoices at the Truth – This one’s big. So often our rejoicing comes from the wrong reasons. We rejoice when we see an opponent put in their place, or a favored position trumpeted loudly. And, honestly, that’s not always bad–sometimes these positions ought to be trumpeted and these persons do need to be set in their places. But all too often, our concern isn’t about the truth being championed, but about our own vindication over against those with whom we disagree. Because of that, we don’t really mind that an argument was straw-manned, or someone was mildly slandered–but we should. Blogging that rejoices at the truth is one that takes delight in the truth being known, even when that means being proved wrong.

Bears all Things, Hopes all Things, Endures all Things – Finally, blogging with love means bearing, hoping, and enduring all things. It means bearing insults and misunderstandings, at times–not passively submitting, but steadfastly refusing to return evil for evil in the Spirit of our Savior. It means hoping the best of people, reading charitably, and receiving honest criticisms in the best possible light. Or, when the best possible light is still darkness, trusting that this same Spirit is at work in their heart and mind. It means enduring through the empty days, the lonely days, the quiet times when no one seems to read or care, except for your heavenly Father above, whose eye is ever watchful on the works of his children.

Of course there’s more to life than blogging, and more to love than the paltry reflections I’ve offered up here. Still, for those of us who desire our words to be more than a noisy cymbals or clanging gongs, they’re probably a decent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Atheist’s Letter From Birmingham Jail (TGC)

MLK-in-jailIn April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for his participation in the organized, non-violent marches and sit-ins against racial segregation in Birmingham. On the same day, eight white Alabama clergymen, some Christian, some not, published an open letter on unity that decried the demonstrations and urged patience, asking people to restrict their efforts to the courts and not the streets.

King received a copy of the letter while in prison and in response wrote what is now recognized as one of the most important moral treatises of the 20th century, his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it, King damningly exposed the weakness, moral turpitude, and short-sightedness of the “white moderates” encouraging the protesters to cease their activist efforts until a “more convenient season.” It is passionate testimony to King’s deep moral logic, striking in its clarity.

But many engaged in school readings and college composition discussions fail to see that if there is no God, this letter is meaningless.

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

Adoption is About Transformation

billingsJ.I. Packer has aptly summarized the Gospel as “Adoption by grace.” In my favorite little intro to the Reformed tradition,  J. Todd Billings explains that God’s adoption of us in Christ, is not only a metaphor about our initial justification, but plays into the way we think of our sanctification:

While the metaphor of adoption begins as a legal act, it does not end there: it ends with membership in the household of God (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19), with a calling to act into the reality of this new identity. God’s legal act of adopting into the family of God results in a new identity, in an eschatologically conditioned way. Thus, when we are given an identity in Christ, we are called to live into it. For example, the doxological opening of Ephesians 1 says that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (v. 5). As the blessings of being in Christ are unfolded in the following verses, Paul returns to the language of adoption and inheritance—that “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:11–12, emphasis added). This new identity of one belonging to a new family in Christ is sealed by the Spirit in the verses that follow: “In him you also . . . were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). The adopted identity in Christ, sealed by the Spirit, leads to living “for the praise of his glory” (1:12), but also provides the ground for numerous ethical exhortations in Ephesians: the call to unity (4:13); to prayer (6:18); to speaking and living the truth in Christ (4:15, 21, 25; 6:14); to living in “love” rather than in anger, malice, and bitterness (4:21–5:1). All of these exhortations are to reflect the behavior of those who have been conferred a new adopted identity in Christ and who seek to live into this inheritance received as children of God in Christ.

In contrast to some theologians who have associated adoption only with justification, Paul’s overall usage of the adoption metaphor describes both the legal dimension of being transferred into God’s family and the transformative dimension of growing in God’s family. By associating adoption only with justification, theologians have sometimes tended to emphasize the legal at the expense of the transformative side of adoption. Trevor Burke has criticized certain Reformed scholastic thinkers, in particular, for making adoption a subset or benefit of justification without recognizing its distinct meaning. While Burke makes a good point, I suspect some of the reason for the confusion comes from the following: Theologians have often spoken about the act of becoming adopted as a forensic act, which is a valid point (as Burke agrees). But the forensic sense of becoming adopted does not exhaust the meaning of Paul’s metaphor, because the result of that act is that one is adopted to be a son or daughter of God, placed in the security of God’s family, and given a new identity to live into in an eschatologically conditioned way. Some theologians have thus been too quick to assume that the meaning of “adoption” is exhausted by the act of becoming adopted. Significantly for this chapter, however, this is not a mistake that John Calvin makes. Calvin uses the image of adoption as a way to describe the double grace of justification and sanctification received in union with Christ. Calvin understood that as an image for salvation, the act of becoming adopted is a legal, forensic action, but it has another dimension as well: as an image for the way Christians are to act as children of the Father who promises “to nourish us throughout the course of our life.” Indeed, the Spirit gives new life, displayed in love of God and neighbor, which “shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us (cf. Romans 8:15).”

–J. Todd Billings (2011-11-01). Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Kindle Locations 457-486). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Unsurprisingly, J.I. Packer has quite a bit to say about the way adoption transforms our identity. Towards the end of his chapter on the subject in his classic Knowing God, Packer summarizes some of the glories of adoption and gives us some questions to ask ourselves in light of this brilliant reality:

Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy Life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honoring life, and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine. To help us realize more adequately who and what, as children of God, we are and are called to be, here are some questions by which we do well to examine ourselves again and again.

Do I understand my adoption? Do I value it? Do I daily remind myself of my privilege as a child of God?

Have I sought full assurance of my adoption? Do I daily dwell on the love of God to me?

Do I treat God as my Father in heaven, loving, honoring and obeying him, seeking and welcoming his fellowship, and trying in everything to please him, as a human parent would want his child to do?

Do I think of Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord, as my brother too, bearing to me not only a divine authority but also a divine-human sympathy? Do I think daily how close he is to me, how completely he understands me, and how much, as my kinsman-redeemer, he cares for me?

Have I learned to hate the things that displease my Father? Am I sensitive to the evil things to which he is sensitive? Do I make a point of avoiding them, lest I grieve him?

Do I look forward daily to that great family occasion when the children of God will finally gather in heaven before the throne of God, their Father, and of the Lamb, their brother and their Lord? Have I felt the thrill of this hope?

Do I love my Christian brothers and sisters with whom I live day by day, in a way that I shall not be ashamed of when in heaven I think back over it? Am I proud of my Father, and of his family, to which by his grace I belong? Does the family likeness appear in me? If not, why not?

God humble us; God instruct us; God make us his own true children.

Knowing God, pp. 258-260

Soli Deo Gloria

Why You Just Might Want a Penal Account of Just War

just warI finally cracked open Oliver O’Donovan’s little treatise The Just War Revisited over the break. In it he tries to revitalize a judicial account of Just War theory, along the lines of an international application of criminal law in a situation where no comparable authority is able to adjudicate between nations. He does this against the background of the recent trend in Just War thinking oriented primarily towards accounts that privilege “self-defense” as the only acceptable justification for war, making altruistic/interventionist action less intelligible within modern frameworks.

In a particularly remarkable passage, O’Donovan makes the, surprising to many, suggestion that when we screen out any penal objectives, or considerations of desert, from our moral consideration of war, we actually end up with less restraint rather than more. So what happens when we lose our ability to think of war in punitive terms? Or, put more provocatively, what would we gain if we began to reconsider penal elements in our war-making?

In our own time the notion of punishment, though hardly aired, is an important tacit support for wars of humanitarian assistance, for only penal desert can justify intervention into a foreign state’s jurisdiction and responsibility out of its hands. Without it, international justice is pushed back upon the ‘perimeter fence’. But the notion also has a critical role in keeping war objectives limited. The pursuit of safety can run to indefinite lengths, and the pursuit of right without regard to guilt can be a cruel thing. When Palestinian guerrillas cross the border from the Occupied Territories into Israel and perform isolated acts of terrorism, in reprisal for which Israel launches massive military bombardment, we call it ‘over-reaction’. What we mean is simply that there is a penal disproportion between offense and response. Whatever the guilt of the attack, it strikes us that the Palestinians have ‘not deserved’ all that they are forced to take. Israel may appeal to its need for safety; but that need is infinitely elastic. To require a penal objective guards against the resort to war as a response to non-culpable injury, and prevents the subtle expansion of defensive war-aims into further goals, such as colonisation. Common prejudice is inclined to suppose that punitive objectives make for unbridled war; but the truth is more or less the opposite; they impose the tightest of reins, since punishment is measured strictly by desert. –pg. 58

In other words, if disconnected from concerns about justice as desert, or punishment, war loses important limits. We can claim “defense” as a justification for all sorts of expanding precautionary measures, but war pursued with respect to penal desert can only go so far. Some actions may indeed make us safer, but do our opponents actually deserve them?

C.S. Lewis made a roughly analogous point in his classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” His main conceit was that merely deterrent or rehabilitory accounts of imprisonment, capital punishment, and so forth, lose the characteristic trait of justice by dispensing with desert, and ironically become more oppressive:

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.

Now some of us might not immediately see the problem with this. After all, it does seem to see things a bit more humanely, less moralistically, and purged of any possible vindictiveness. Yet Lewis goes on to illustrate the problem with an example of where this logic leads in real life:

Let us rather remember that the ‘cure’ of criminals is to be compulsory; and let us then watch how the theory actually works in the mind or the Humanitarian. The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And or course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts—and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature—who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

We see here how relevant and necessary the punitive question of desert becomes in the prevention of tyranny or injustice in the name of supposedly more enlightened accounts. In the hands of the humane social engineers, a crime deserving of a two-year sentence might be treated for five and with electro-shocks “for the sake of the patient”. Or again, if deterrence is the sole motivation for action, that someone be guilty is not strictly necessary for an example to be made. An innocent accused of the crime, or simply held up as an example of what will happen if you do step out of line, will do just as well. (For more on this, I’d commend to you the rest of the Lewis essay linked above.)

To sum up, while it may seem initially less aggressive, more justifiable by contemporary moral sentiments to screen out moralistic concerns about desert and punishment, it turns out we might just want a penal account of Just War.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Absurdity of Christian “Obsession” with Abortion and Single-Issue Voting

Jan. 22 marks the 41st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. It has been popular in recent years for younger Evangelicals, or post-Evangelicals, to criticize Christians for having been so “obsessed” with the whole abortion issue for the past 40 years or so. While most don’t dispute its importance, or even its ethics, they can’t quite bring themselves to care about it with the same passion, or understand how their parents could have fixated on it to the exclusion of all other relevant political issues. With poverty, the ecological crisis, and rising violence in the world, how is it that for so many Christians abortion still is the issue?

I’ve refrained from commenting on issues of this sort over the last few years, largely for pastoral reasons, but when a buddy of mine asked a question along the same lines the other night, I was forced to re-examine why the issue has been such a sticking point for me in my own political wanderings. Among the various arguments that ran through my head, one thought in particular stuck out to me: if abortion really is the termination of an innocent human life, then I can’t think of another issue for which we have as much to answer for in America.

At the outset, I must say that none of this is meant as a comment on the pastoral issue involved with the decisions of individual women in horrifying situations faced with such terrible situations. Given the usual struggle with guilt, shame, and depression, compassionate care leads me to believe that the grace of God and the restoring word of the Gospel must be the first one on our lips. But in the world of governance and the provisional judgments of political authority, the dark moral reality must be painted in their starkest light.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, since abortion was legalized in the 1970s roughly 50 million + abortions have been performed in the US alone. Let’s see that with zeroes: 50,000,000. Again, assuming abortion really is the ending of an innocent human life, we’re talking about a death-toll over eight times the carnage of the Holocaust. Each year the death-toll dwarfs that of any armed conflict currently taking place around the globe. In New York City, it’s reported that 41%, or 2 in 5 of all pregnancies end in abortion. When we put it in that light, you can begin to see why for so many this isn’t simply one issue among the others.

Let me put it this way: nobody today would say that MLK Jr. was wrong for fixating on race and equality issues. Nor would anybody today complain about abolitionists’ single-minded obsession with slavery. I shudder to think what future generations will think when they look at Christians today and their lack of horror at the tragedy of abortion in America. At this point I’m reminded of one of the best, albeit snarky, rants against self-righteous complaints about ignorant, Christian “single-issue voting” I’ve ever seen. This was back before my blogging days, but I ran across this online, saved it for a rainy day, and unfortunately I don’t remember where or when or who this was. (Also, just to clarify, a. this is sarcastic, b. the grammar is not mine.):

Ok, bear with me as I rant. I’ve just about had it already with you people!

I am not a single issue voter. I never have been and WON’T become one now! There are dozens of other equally-important issues out there for which we can find common ground and then just leave the whole abortion thing alone. Why hit THAT red button every election cycle?

It’s always the same old mantra every four years. A bunch of crazy right-wingers, who I resent being associated with, keep blathering on about the “scourge” of abortion and the “injustice” of killing “innocent” human lives. I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we have more important things to talk about like health care and taking care of the LIVING (and aging) population, a war in Iraq, an energy crisis looming, financial scandal, and all the rest. What is UP with you single-issue voters anyway?

It was just this way in the sixties. A bunch of do-gooder activists wandered the streets and took up valuable air time in the nightly news holding up signs, blathering on about human rights and demanding equal rights for black people. I mean c’mon, BLACK people of all things! When we SHOULD have been talking about the environment and not wasting our time with such frivolities, there they were, the single issue voters, rearing their ugly heads and ignoring a dozen other more important issues, at least!

Then I remember back in the 40’s, we spent trillions of US dollars funding a ridiculous war to help liberate “The Oppressed” Jews and others held in so called death camps across Europe. What did we gain from that, I’d like to know? Jews. Right here on OUR soil! And what a shame, because we had an energy crisis looming that we could have worked our way out of, not to mention at least a handful of other issues.

Less than twenty years before that, there they were again, those single-issue voters. This time, they were sending our boys off to get arms and legs blown to fight against who? I don’t even know! Probably to “liberate” somebody again. I’m sure that their time could have been better spent dealing with inner city crime and controlling the beginnings of the drug trade, or maybe a Mexico fence or something….

At the turn of the 20th century, we witnessed throngs of people about protesting against injustices directed at WOMEN and demanding basic human rights for them. I mean, come on! WOMEN!! What’s up with that, America?!? It’s almost inconceivable that we didn’t put our time and efforts into something at least as important like the job market and the economy. Maybe we could have avoided those world wars altogether!

So now you can see why I’ve had it with you people! When are you going to get it through your heads that you CAN’T vote just a single issue? Our borders are vulnerable, our education system is a joke, and we’re in the middle of a great big mess of a war. We have work to do in the economy, environment, and energy. We have to shore up our investments and home mortgages and get ready for retirement. We have children to cart around and music lessons and dogs to feed and new music to buy and (Oh My gosh, I almost forgot) I have to tape the latest episode of…something or other.

There’s just waaaay too much important stuff out there to worry about one issue like abortion. Besides that, abortion’s kind of… like… eew, you know, and all that stuff?

Again, none of this is a comment on the particular cases of individual women in desperate situations. Nor is it necessarily to say this makes voting a clear issue. Some continue to make the case that voting for an explicitly pro-life candidate isn’t always the most pro-life thing to do. They argue that a prudential decision can be made to vote for a candidate who will, through other means, reduce the total number of abortions given the low chance of actually over-turning Roe V. Wade, or passing pro-life legislation. I’m not entirely convinced by that logic, but I can see someone making it in good conscience.

My only point here is to illuminate why, given the reality of what Christians believe abortion is, it is perfectly sensible for Christians to be passionate about the issue, to the point of “obsession.” Of course, I hope it motivates them to do more, say, spare a few volunteer hours with local women in difficult situations. Again, this is not only a national political issue, but ultimately one for the local church to be involving itself in, giving women better choices at the personal level, beyond just closing certain horrible doors at the legal level.

In closing, I’m reminded of the comments of the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin in an address entitled “Gospel and Culture” delivered in 1996 in Brazil at a Conference on Mission and Evangelism:

“I am going to raise on particular issue which I have never raised in public before and which I did not intend to raise when I came to Salvador. It is connected with this ribbon on my wrist. When we stood in the old slave market on Saturday morning on those rough stones which had felt the weight of the bare and bruised and shackled feet of countless of our fellow human beings, when we stood in that place so heavy with human sin and human suffering and we were asked to spend two minutes in silence waiting for what the Spirit might say to us, I thought first how unbelievable that Christians could have connived in that inhuman trade; and then there came to my mind a question: Will it not be the case that perhaps our great-grandchildren will be equally astonished at the way in which we in our generation, in our so-called modern, Western, rich, developed culture, connive at the whole-sale slaughter of unborn children in the name of that central idol of our culture—freedom of choice? I know—and as I say, I have never raised that issue in public before, but do so because I was told to do so—I know that to raise it is exceedingly painful, as painful as was the struggle against the slave trade, as painful as was the World Council’s program to combat racism. But I have discharged that commission. In the context of this conference it is simply one example of the costliness of that attempt to ensure that the gospel is not domesticated within our cultures, but continually challenges our culture.”

–Reprinted in Signs Amid the Rubble, pg. 118

Indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria

“23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23″, And Other Myths

So, I’ve seen this article on “23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23” get posted a bit lately. I read it. I get the appeal. I did want to offer a few quick thoughts from a dude who got engaged at well, 24, but was apparently so dumb he knew whom he was going to marry at 20.

Before I do that, though, a couple of quick caveats: I just watched two of my best friends get married last year right at about 30. Many of my other friends will. This is not a judgment on them, and there is certainly nothing inherently immoral or wrong about it. I am not saying that if you’re 23 and single, there’s something wrong with you. In fact, as a Christian, I think you can live a whole, healthy life without ever getting married. Singleness (and celibacy) were first elevated to an honorable lifestyle in Western culture through the spread of Christianity.

What I want to do is just push back on a few mistakes I’m seeing here that are easy to make:

1. Not everybody that gets engaged or married at a young age is doing it because they’re vulnerable, desperate, scared, or pathetically lonely. It’s condescending and arrogant of this young woman to suggest that. It’s turning the contingencies of her own situation into the virtue that we should all aspire to. In other words, “I’m young, single, lonely but not ready for a marriage so I’m going to tell myself that you must not be either, and you’re pretty much dumb for getting married young, which makes me super wise and self-knowing.” Honestly, I get that a lot of people our age feel the unfair pressure of people imposing the values of another age and time, the example of our parents, and so forth, on their shoulders. The problem is, this article is essentially making the same mistake in reverse.

2. “The divorce rate among young couples is high.” Yes, that’s true. But if you look at the sociology on it, this is not mostly talking about a couple of kids out of college who’ve decided to start a life together. A lot of that rate is affected by low-income, low-education couples, with unplanned pregnancies, marrying out of pressure. Actually, according to some of the latest sociological research, 22-27 is actually about the perfect age for getting engaged and married in terms of happiness and marital longevity. I would just say, beware of misleading sociology, or quickly assigning explanations to complex phenomena.

3. “I need to find out who I am before I can build a life with someone.” Yes, and no. One of the reasons that young couples divorce is due to the misleading, romantic, idealistic expectations they have about marriage. I would also point out there are similarly misleading myths about singleness and identity held by these very same people. See, there is this romantic myth that at some point in the future we reach this stable self, this pinnacle of self-knowledge and self-awareness that might be expanded on, but will essentially stay the same for the foreseeable future. The reality is that you will change, grow, and develop over the whole of your life. While the person you are at 23 is not the person you will be at 27, what’s also true is that the person you will be at 27 is not the person you will be at 35, and so forth. You will always be changing and growing. As theologian Lewis Smedes has said, “My wife has been married to 4 different men in her life–and they’ve all been me.”

Yes, many 23-year olds are immature and in transition. Yes, a number of them need to develop a bit before covenanting themselves in the bond of marriage. I shudder at the thought of some 23-year olds I know getting married in a rush. At the same time, I just performed a marriage for a couple of 22-year olds this summer that I am absolutely ecstatic for. They are sane, solid, stable, and have embarked on a wonderful adventure: they get to find out who they are together. They can still do the vast majority of the 23 things on that list, and, honestly, the rest of them aren’t worth engaging.

Let me put it this way: I didn’t marry my wife because I knew exactly who I was, or entirely knew who she was. I married my wife because I knew enough about her that I wanted to see the woman she is going to become, and want to be there for it. What’s more, I want her to be there as I grow and develop. I know that I’m a better man because I have been “finding myself” alongside of her for the last few years instead of apart from her. Now, the catch is, in our case one of the reasons I wanted to be with McKenna is because I knew she wouldn’t want me to find myself in her, but would always point me to Jesus. Still, my marriage hasn’t gotten in the way, but it has helped me keep on the way.

Actually, to follow up, one of the big issues that can plague later marriages between two people who have been single during this crucial developmental period is that you get so settled in your ways, so calcified in “being yourself” apart from the person you’re looking to marry that you don’t have the emotional elasticity it takes to make a marriage work. When I married my wife, I didn’t have 30 years of single guy habits build up around the way I did things, or thought of myself that I had to kill in order for a marriage to a sane woman to put up with me (although, McKenna is still a saint for putting up with me.)

Thing is you never marry someone who is a “perfect fit.” You’re always going to have to make compromises, sacrifices, and grow in order to make this thing work. I am not saying that you can’t develop the character traits you need to make this work if you’re single in your twenties. What I am saying is that it’s not at all obvious that you ought to stay single longer in order to be ready for marriage. For some people it might be a good idea. For some of us, getting married is what has to happen.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I wrote this in a bit of a rush, but here are two resources to check out:

1. The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller – This is my go-to book for understanding the purpose and practice of marriage. It’s simply beautiful.

2. Premarital Sex In America by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker – This study published by Oxford University press is where I’m getting my sociology. It’s exhaustive and well-sourced.

12 Tips for Keeping It Clean In Your Dating Relationship

awkward dateSo, I work with college students. Sometimes they like to date each other. Being human, with normal, God-given (but fallen) physical desires they also want to do stuff together while they’re dating. You know–sexy stuff. Of course, most of them who’ve been around long enough have learned that the Bible says the sexy stuff is God’s good, beautiful, and pleasurable idea for knitting a man and a woman together in marriage. In the meantime then, I’ll have couples approach me wondering if there are ways that they can continue to build their relationships in holy, appropriate ways, and avoid temptation.

Now, I remind them that it’s not just about not breaking rules–it’s an issue of the heart. I remind them of the grace of the Gospel for any past or future failure, and that this is not the one, irrevocable sin.  I encourage them to look to Christ, develop their relationship with him, and all the good spiritual, foundational stuff. But then, well, I get “practical” and offer them a few (slightly humorous) tips that helped my wife and I during the (four!) years we were dating.

I can’t emphasize enough that these are not laws, but general guidelines that help you obey God’s laws for your good. These are not hard and fast unbreakable rules. They are wisdom, though. Some of them may seem childish or nit-picky. You might think read them, roll your eyes, and think “Really? Come on, I’m not an animal!” True, but you’re not an angel either, and following these can help you honor God in your dating relationship:

  1. Clothes are not optional. But seriously, stay fashionable–in your clothes.
  2. If no one’s home, you’re not home. This might narrow your hang-out options initially, but it forces you to be creative. I really can’t stress this one enough.
  3. Cars are fun when you’re driving. When stationary, you can get in an accident.
  4. Give someone you trust absolute authority to speak into your life and talk to you about this area whenever. Also, don’t lie to them.
  5. Consider the consequences on a regular basis.
  6. Pray at the beginning of your dates.
  7. “Napping” together is stupid. Falling asleep during a movie is one thing, but otherwise…nah.
  8. And God said, “Let there be light…”
  9. Private porn usage always makes a public appearance. Eventually, porn shapes the way you act with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Avoid it at all costs.
  10. Spas are fun group activities.
  11. God gave you legs for a reason. Run when you have to.
  12. Have this conversation often. Re-affirm and re-commit to biblical guidelines and standards for your relationship.

Above all of these, of course, is to constantly be chasing Christ. Tips and rules can help for a while, but it’s the deeper holiness comes through the Spirit of Holiness changing our affections from within through the grace of the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria