Christianity Today Interview with Mark Labberton: “Called” to Follow Jesus

labbertonFollowing Jesus has never been an easy task. All the same, from the time of the disciples until today, Christians have been called to strap on their sandals, so to speak, and walk the road their Lord calls them down. While the basic New Testament call remains the same, though, each age places unique speed-bumps and detours along the path of discipleship. In Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (InterVarsity Press) Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, gives a bracing assessment of the challenges facing the North American church, as well as a hopeful invitation to trust the promises of God as we respond to the call of Jesus in the world. Derek Rishmawy, a minister to students and young adults in California, spoke with Labberton about that vision.

You talk about the crisis and the promise of following Jesus. In a nutshell, what’s the crisis?

The crisis we’re facing is that many people outside and inside the church don’t understand what it’s supposed to be about. It has become encrusted with so many cultural, historical, political, economic forms. As these get thicker and thicker, they distance us from the core affirmation of living as disciples of Jesus. If you look at the New Testament and ask “What is the church?” I think the primary answer is: people living their lives as an act of worship and response to Jesus Christ and seeking to live as daily disciples in community and for the sake of their world. The crisis is that Christians inside the church don’t seem to view this way of life as necessary. This leaves outsiders puzzled about the purpose of the church, because so little of it seems related to Jesus.

And what’s the promise?

The most illuminating moment of the “promise,” in cultural terms, is the shock of Pope Francis. The Catholic Church has been embroiled in scandal for many years. It has been seen as bureaucratic and unresponsive. Then, all of a sudden, there appears this authentic, living disciple. Here is someone who seems to live out of this deep spirit of humility—a Jesus follower who wants a life rooted in simple action.

Across the world, people have looked at his example—economically, politically, socially—and said, “That’s what the church is about?” And Francis is shocked by their shock: “This is what Christians do.” To live with integrity in a way that’s counterintuitive to the wider culture—that’s the promise of following Jesus today.

You can read the rest of the interview here at Christianity Today

Triune Justification

trinityFrom time to time I hear the charge that Protestant and Evangelical approaches to salvation are sub-trinitarian. By focusing so narrowly on the question of justification as a legal or forensic action, or Jesus’ cross-work as its grounding, Protestants have ignored the Father and crowded out the Spirit. While I must admit that may be true in some popular presentations, it’s certainly not the case of classic Reformed theology. Not only was God’s justification set within the context of a broader trinitarian theology of union with Christ, the completion of justification considered in itself can only be conceived of as the gracious work of the Triune One.

Herman Bavinck lays out the trinitarian shape of our justification in laying out the nature of God’s grace as the forgiving mercy of God as opposed to the more metaphysical conception of the medieval Roman church:

The establishment of the covenant of grace proceeds from God and from him alone. It is he and he alone who for his own sake blots out our transgressions and no longer remembers our sins (Isa. 43:25). We are justified by his grace as a gift (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:18; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5–7). More specifically, it is the Father from whom this benefit proceeds, for he is the lawgiver and judge (James 4:12), but also the merciful God, who abounds in steadfast love, and blots out transgressions for his name’s sake (Num. 14:18; Pss. 32:2; 103:3; 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Rom. 3:24; 4:6; 8:33; 2 Cor. 5:19). He himself paved a way in Christ to distribute this benefit, so that Christ, too, possessed the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:2–6; John 5:22, 27), and himself sent the Holy Spirit to apply this benefit to the hearts of his children (John 14:26; Rom. 8:15–16; 1 Cor. 6:11). In the past, Reformed theologians put it as follows: The Father justifies effectively; the Son, meritoriously; the Holy Spirit, applicationally. And to complete the picture at once, let us add: faith apprehends, the sacraments seal, and works declare.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pg. 205

Here we see Augustine’s formula “Opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt”, which translates “the works of the Trinity on the outside are indivisible.” In every act of creation and redemption, it is the Father working through, as Ireneaus classically put it, his “two hands” the Son and the Spirit.

So then, must a Protestant view of salvation be sub-trinitarian? While we must always keep in view the broad shape of salvation from election all the way through to glorification, even a laser-like focus on the article of justification cannot eradicate the Triune shape of our faith. It is God who justifies us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For those looking to go deeper into the trinitarian shape of our faith, I would again commend Fred Sanders’ excellent little book The Deep Things of God

Soli Deo Gloria

Guilt Isn’t Just a ‘Religious’ Problem.

I’m pretty sure everyone’s had one of those conversations where days or months afterwards you think to yourself, “Man, that’s what I should have said to So-n-so!” After analyzing the problem with the heat turned down, you end up spotting the fatal flaw, or key unquestioned assumption that was driving it in the direction it was going. Unfortunately, I have those all the time, both because I overthink things, and because I’m not always as quick on my feet as I’d like to be.

One such conversation arose in one of my philosophy classes in my undergrad. We were talking about the ethics of belief, the sub-section of philosophy that deals with when it’s okay to believe something. Questions such as: Can you believe something just because you want to? Is evidence always necessary for every belief you hold? Is it ever okay to believe something you can’t prove? That kind of thing.

Well, we were discussing Pascal’s famous (and widely misunderstood) argument The Wager. Pascal was writing in Catholic France at a time when philosophical skepticism had made a comeback and the classic arguments for the existence of God were in doubt. As part of a broader apologetic, he proposed a little thought-experiment to show that even without evidence skepticism still wasn’t your best option.  

guiltyThe gist of it is this: you’ve got two things at stake when it comes to belief in God, the truth of the matter and your happiness in this life. What’s more, you’ve got two faculties you use to come to your belief, your reason and your will. He says, “Well, say the odds for and against the existence of God are 50/50–there are good arguments both ways, and so your reason can’t settle the issue and the truth is unverifiable. Then what? Well, you shouldn’t consider the issue settled. You still have your will and your happiness to think about.” In Pascal’s view, it makes sense that you should still go for belief in God because that’s the only way to achieve the joy of meaning, purpose, and so forth that comes with belief in God. For the purposes of the story we don’t need to go further. For a better explanation, consult Peter Kreeft’s excellent summary and retooling of the Wager.

Here’s the payout for the story. Pascal argued that believing in God had benefits and joys for this life like meaning, purpose, virtue, and so forth. As we discussed this, my professor–let’s call him Professor Jones–said something I’ll never forget. He asked, gently, but with a hint of sarcasm, “Oh, you mean the joy of going around feeling guilty all the time for your sins?”  In Professor Jones’ mind, the corollary of belief in God is an overwhelming and unrelievable sense of guilt for violating his rules. This clearly didn’t seem like a step up to him.

Now, at the time, I didn’t have conversational space, or wherewithal to respond adequately, but if I had, I would have said, “Oh, but Professor Jones, you already walk around struggling with guilt over failing your god.”

Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me break it down in a few steps.

Everybody Has a God. The first step is understanding that everybody has a ‘god’ of some sort. The world we live in tends to split people up between “believers” and “non-believers.” The Bible has a different dividing line: worshipers of the true God, or worshipers of something else. See, everybody has something in their life that they treat as a functional god. Whatever you look to in order to give you a sense of self, meaning, worth, and value is a ‘god.’ Martin Luther put it this way:

A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. –Large Catechism

So whether you “believe” intellectually, in a deity or not, you still worship something. This is because we were created by God for worship, so if we won’t worship him something else rushes in to plays that role in your life, be it money,  career, status, relationships, and so forth. It’s either God, or an idol. There is no other option.

Everybody Follows and Fails that God’s Commands. Following off of this, every god has commands and demands worship. If make money your god, then you are under command (compulsion) in order to do whatever it takes to acquire it. You will work as hard as you need to (become a workaholic) and sacrifice whatever you have to (relationships, kids, ethics) in order to get it. When you have it, you feel secure. You’ve achieved and obeyed and so the god has blessed you. The flipside is, if you fail it, make a bad investment, lose your cash in a housing crash, then you feel the loss of security, but also the crushing sense of guilt that comes with failing your god. Wrath descends.

A few moment’s reflection You can see this everywhere: from the careerist who can’t forgive herself for blowing that promotion, to that bitter young scholar struggling to live up to his father’s expectations, to the mother who crushes herself because her child-god didn’t turn out picture perfect the way she needed her to. All of them struggle under the weight of the guilt brought on by their failure to please their functional gods. All of them suffer guilt and shame, even if we don’t call it that.

David Foster Wallace has a justly famous quote on the subject:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Only the Biblical God Offers Forgiveness and Grace.

Here’s where it all clicked for me, though. I was reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and I ran across this brilliant passage at the end of his chapter breaking down this idolatry dynamic:

Remember this— if you don’t live for Jesus you will live for something else. If you live for career and you don’t do well it may punish you all of your life, and you will feel like a failure. If you live for your children and they don’t turn out all right you could be absolutely in torment because you feel worthless as a person. If Jesus is your center and Lord and you fail him, he will forgive you. Your career can’t die for your sins. You might say, “If I were a Christian I’d be going around pursued by guilt all the time!” But we all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity. Whatever you base your life on— you have to live up to that. Jesus is the one Lord you can live for who died for you— who breathed his last breath for you. Does that sound oppressive?

..Everybody has to live for something. Whatever that something is becomes “Lord of your life,” whether you think of it that way or not. Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (pp. 170-171)

So to sum up: Everybody has a god. Every god has rules and everybody fails their god. Everybody walks around with guilt and shame. But only the God we find in Jesus Christ will forgive those sins so that we don’t have to walk around feeling guilty all the time. Ironically enough, believing in God isn’t the road to more guilt, but the road out from underneath the guilt you already struggle with.

This is really the answer I’d wish I’d given Professor Jones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm’s Individualist Account of Atonement? Nope.

NPG D23949; St Anselm after Unknown artistSt. Anselm of Canterbury is almost universally recognized as one of the greatest theological lights of the Western church. This also makes him, along with Augustine and a couple others, one of contemporary theology’s favorite whipping boys.  His theological legacy is most commonly linked to two subjects in popular mind: the ontological argument for the existence of God, and the so-called satisfaction “theory” of atonement.  Both run in for heavy fire. For instance, have a problem with the Western tradition when it comes to God? Blame Anselm for his attempt to formulate “perfect being” theology via logical argumentation in the Middle Ages. It’s that simple.

From my readings, though, he is far more commonly attacked for his satisfaction account of Christ’s work to atone for our sins and save us through the cross in his classic Cur Deus Homo  (Why God Became Man). For those unfamiliar with it, very roughly: humanity has through sin failed to render God the honor due him, have robbed him, violated his law, and thereby fallen under God’s judgment. As the Godman, Christ’s obedient life and death for sin are meritorious in such a way that they “satisfy”, or make up for the damage we have incurred. We are then set free from judgment to be reconciled to God. Incidentally, this is not the only thing Anselm thought about the cross or atonement. Witness early on in the work:

For, as death came upon the human race by the disobedience of man, it was fitting that by man’s obedience life should be restored. And, as sin, the cause of our condemnation, had its origin from a woman, so ought the author of our righteousness and salvation to be born of a woman. And so also was it proper that the devil, who, being man’s tempter, had conquered him in eating of the tree, should be vanquished by man in the suffering of the tree which man bore. Many other things also, if we carefully examine them, give a certain indescribable beauty to our redemption as thus procured. — Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 1.3

I mention this because people who have problems with satisfaction or its more Evangelical descendent, penal substitution account, blame it on Anselm’s logic-chopping and his mindset anchored in the feudal world for reducing the accomplishment of the cross to satisfaction and nothing else.

While there’s something to the charge that the feudal setting influenced Anselm’s formulation, one of the silliest charges I’ve seen crop up against him lately is to say that the account of this premodern medieval theologian is the root of individualistic accounts of sin. Now, I’ll agree that Anselm’s un-mooring of the Scriptural logic from its thicker narrative and cultural context can be problematic. But honestly, can anyone read this passage and tell me we’re dealing with an individualistic account of salvation and sin?

Anselm. It now remains to inquire whence and how God shall assume human nature. For he will either take it from Adam, or else he will make a new man, as he made Adam originally. But, if he makes a new man, not of Adam’s race, then this man will not belong to the human family, which descended from Adam, and therefore ought not to make atonement for it, because he never belonged to it. For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race. Otherwise, neither Adam nor his race would make satisfaction for themselves. Therefore, as through Adam and Eve sin was propagated among all men, so none but themselves, or one born of them, ought to make atonement for the sin of men. And, since they cannot, one born of them must fulfil this work. Moreover, as Adam and his whole race, had he not sinned, would have stood firm without the support of any other being, so, after the fall, the same race must rise and be exalted by means of itself. For, whoever restores the race to its place, it will certainly stand by that being who has made this restoration. Also, when God created human nature in Adam alone, and would only make woman out of man, that by the union of both sexes there might be increase, in this he showed plainly that he wished to produce all that he intended with regard to human nature from man alone. Wherefore, if the race of Adam be reinstated by any being not of the same race, it will not be restored to that dignity which it would have had, had not Adam sinned, and so will not be completely restored; and, besides, God will seem to have failed of his purpose, both which suppositions are incongruous: It is, therefore, necessary that the man by whom Adam’s race shall be restored be taken from Adam. –Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 2.8

Whatever else you make of it, Anselm’s entire logic depends on the fact that we are not discrete, atomized individuals, but rather members of a family, a corporate whole that is capable of being represented by either Adam or Christ. This is a robust notion of corporate sin and corporate salvation through corporate solidarity with the person of Jesus, our perfect, human brother. This is completely in line with the Old Testament with its notion of corporate representatives (1 Kings 12, Isaiah 53, Daniel 7). And though different in the details, it parallels and is clearly dependent on Paul’s corporate Adam-Christ logic in Romans 5:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)

Heck, jump ahead and you’ll find this in Ireneaus and most of the other church Fathers who don’t get tagged with the “individualism” charge. What’s more, classic penal substitution theology follows him in this via refinements in covenant theology. Adam and Christ are covenant heads whose sin (in the case of the former) and redemptive, holy death (in the case of the latter) have corporate effects for those whom they represent. Read Calvin, or most of the other Reformers and you will not find some atomized theology of merely individual salvation. Yes, each individual is the object of God’s saving grace, but they are so through the union the Mediator of the New Covenant (a very corporate structure).

Now, given then way pop-Evangelicalism has individualized everything, sure, I can definitely see satisfaction and penal substitution accounts being taught in individualistic fashions. That said, there is nothing inherently hyper-individualistic about either of these approaches.

Again, while there’s probably plenty to critique about Anselm’s discussion of the satisfaction element in the atonement, individualism is one charge we should probably leave behind.

Soli Deo Gloria

When Can We Stop Conversing and Believe Some Stuff? A Ramble on Intellectual Narcissism

landingI’ve written before about current failure of intellectual imagination that plagues our current, cultural conversations, especially around conversion narratives. If you used to believe something for stupid, sinful reasons, then that’s the only reason anybody could hold the position you used to hold. If people haven’t updated their beliefs along the lines you have, it’s because they haven’t read the arguments you have, so they simply need to be enlightened.

What follows is a ramble on another, related angle on the same problem.

Of late I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to assume people are in our same intellectual position with respect to an issue that’s up for debate. For instance, if you’ve never really struggled with doubt, it’s very hard to put yourself in the position of someone who is wrestling with issues that just seem obvious and intuitive to you. In theological circles, it may be tempting to write it off as pure perversity and rebellion, rather than real intellectual and moral tension.

On the flipside, if you’ve got doubts, then it’s hard to deal with someone who doesn’t currently seem to be sharing them. Their certainty on the issue can be off-putting, or, even more, unthinkable. It’s difficult to imagine that someone has wrestled as hard as you have and then come out on the other side and still holds the beliefs you used to hold, or different beliefs, or indeed, any strong beliefs on this at all. This actually seems to be more than case nowadays, especially because our culture puts a premium on heroic doubt. I don’t remember where he said this, but Matthew Lee Anderson has pointed out that in the current intellectual climate, beliefs aren’t as valid, or true, unless we’ve passed through some period of angst, or torment over them, otherwise they appear as inauthentic expressions of bad faith.

I was thinking about all of this as I was reading Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics. While he probably pushes too hard in one direction, he talked about the fact that it’s fine to search while you haven’t found the truth, but once you found it, land and be content with the truth:

But at the outset I lay down (this position) that there is some one, and therefore definite, thing taught by Christ, which the Gentiles are by all means bound to believe, and for that purpose to “seek,” in order that they may be able, when they have “found” it, to believe. However, there can be no indefinite seeking for that which has been taught as one only definite thing. You must “seek” until you “find,” and believe when you have found; nor have you anything further to do but to keep what you have believed provided you believe this besides, that nothing else is to be believed, and therefore nothing else is to be sought, after you have found and believed what has been taught by Him who charges you to seek no other thing than that which He has taught.

I take him to be saying something like this: When you go seeking for a spouse, the point is to find one, right? Now, once you find one, you’re not supposed to keep searching are you? That’s not to say you’re not still learning, or exploring–but it’s of a different character now. Before I was looking for a land to settle in, but now I’m exploring the land I have. Before I was searching to find a wife. Now I’m “exploring” my wife, looking to grow and learn in the context of an already settled relationship. This is no less stimulating, adventurous, or somehow closed-minded–it’s just the way relationships work. Depth and love are not the result of constant foundation-testing and tinkering, but in building once those things have been tinkered, tested, and settled on.

Something similar is true about theological truth. I’ve searched a bit and have already landed on the Apostles Creed. That’s not up for grabs for me anymore–at least, not in a live way, really. Now, I suppose theoretically someone could provide me with defeater beliefs for it and I’d give it up, but not for now. For now I have cast my bet, rolled the dice, and landed on a basic outline of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Lord who reveals God as Triune, salvation by God’s grace, and so forth. The question now is learning to understand what I’ve come to believe in a deeper fashion.

Where’s all of this going? Well, I suppose it comes to a few questions. Are you okay with ever landing? Is your approach to faith one that dictates we should we continue doubting and testing the same things over and over? Or, when it comes to cultural conversations on hot-button issues, do we have to keep having the same conversation? Or rather, am I expected to constantly come into every conversation with the same level of hesitancy as you do, or be deemed inauthentic and totalitarian? Can I be confident of my beliefs even as I’m tender and understanding of yours?

In the other direction, do you enter every conversation with the expectation that people have reached the level of confidence and security that you have? In other words, is every expression of uncertainty and doubt an expression of rebellion and perversity, or do you give some space for those who are still piecing it through?

I don’t have a conclusion here other than something I try to remind myself of all of the time: when dealing with people you disagree with, try your best not to be an intellectual narcissist.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Do I Know I’m One of His Sheep? I Hear His Voice

lost sheepAssurance is hard to come by sometimes. For many of us, walking through the Christian life is less a matter of one triumphant stride after another, than a collection of bumps, bruises, stumbles, tumbles headlong down a hill like Wile E. Coyote, and an occasional sober step in the right direction. In our periods of lost meandering then, it becomes very easy to doubt yourself and your faith.

“Am I a Christian at all?”

“Do I really believe this?”

“Am I saved?”

“Is this going anywhere?”

In Bible study the other night, we were struck by surprising word of comfort amidst the heat of controversy. Jesus is once again arguing with this religious critics after healing a man born blind (John 9). He goes on to discuss the difference between the wicked shepherds of Israel and himself, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10). In the middle of it, he gives a reason for the very mixed reactions he’s receiving from the crowd:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me,is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:25-30)

Did you catch that? Why are they not accepting Jesus’ words, while others do? Because they’re not sheep. How do we know? Because sheep recognize their Shepherd’s voice.

After some discussion, my good brother and ministry partner Matt spoke of the great comfort of those words. He spoke of the struggle he has at times to trust, his self-doubt, and flaws. But then he said this, and this is golden, “I may be a lame, kind of mangled straggler at the back of the flock, but I know I hear his voice. That assures me I’m one of his sheep. Whatever else, I know I hear his voice.”

Some of us need to hear that today. We’re caught in sin, or tripped up in doubt. Maybe we’re depressed and prone to melancholy. We’re straggling along, wondering if the Shepherd knows us. Take heart, he’s calling your name and you are his. You will not be snatched from his hand.

Soli Deo Gloria