Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

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

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

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

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

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

How about some other Pauline epistles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

love one anotherThe Bible’s a funny thing sometimes. It doesn’t always say what I expect it to. I mean, for instance, we all know that the Bible teaches us to love and not hate, right?

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:7-9)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” -(Matthew 5:43-44)

Texts like this could be multiplied a dozen times over. It’s pretty basic. God is love, so Christians love and don’t hate, right? Except for there are these other types  of verses I run across in the Bible (that could be multiplied) too:

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

 I hate them with complete hatred;

    I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)

Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)

Welp. I guess it’s not that simple now is it?

I mean, with Psalm 139 you could point out that they have to do with Old covenant expressions of loyalty to a covenant Lord. He ‘loves’ his Lord, therefore he ‘hates’ his opponents in the sense that he will  oppose them insofar as they oppose God. Also, this could be the kind of thing that Jesus overturns in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. That’s harder to do with Psalm 5 talking about God’s ‘hate’ for evil-doers, but you could write it off as hyperbole, or again, OT stuff. I’d be careful about that, but I can see the move being made with some plausibility.

But what about those next two? I mean, in Romans Paul explicitly tells us to let our love be sincere. Later in the very same passage he tells us to forgo vengeance and retaliation against our enemies, even quoting Jesus about ‘blessing those who curse you’ (12:14-21). So he clearly knows Jesus’ teaching. But here, in the same earlier verse, he tells us to ‘hate what is evil’ as a way of describing how we ought to love. Apparently the inspired witness to the Risen Christ saw no contradiction there.

And what about Jesus? Because you know that’s who is talking in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus is giving a message to the Church in Ephesus (the same church that is receiving the letter of 1 John, by the way), and the one thing that he commends them for is ‘hating’ the works of the Nicolaitan, “which I also hate.’ Evidently hating the right things was the only way they were properly imitating Jesus.

So what gives? Which is it? Love or hate? Because it’s not just Old Testament versus New Testament. The question is sharper. Is it Paul or Paul? Is Jesus wrong or is Jesus right?

Dead-End Distinctions?

The issue came up for me as I read an interchange of articles between Jonathan Parnell over at Desiring God and Micah Murray over at Redemption Pictures. Parnell made the argument that our love for sinners and enemies must, paradoxically must include a hate for sinners. It’s not so simple to separate out sinner from sin and so precisely because their sin contributes to their own destruction and self-damnation we must lovingly, in some sense, hate them. Murray then pointed to the clear testimony of God’s love and lovingness in Scripture and said that this is basically the kind of logic only a Calvinist who’d put system ahead of Jesus’ could embrace. The idea that love could include hate is such an obvious dead-end that should tip us off we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Now, initially I get Murray’s apprehension. Aside from the fact that he’s definitely not a Calvinist and predisposed to disagree with anything coming out of Desiring God, it’s initially an off-putting thought. For the most part, it seems like people don’t need to be taught to hate their enemies. That sort of comes naturally to sinners. Also, Parnell’s piece was rather a short, undeveloped article liable to confusion. Lord knows I’ve written a couple of those. I’m unsurprised there’s maybe some cross-talk going on. Still, both are good men trying to love Jesus, honor the Scriptures, and live the Christian life well. So what are we to think?

Given the biblical evidence I surveyed above, it seems worth analyzing the dispute at a few levels. One is how we understand the different senses of the term ‘hate’, how we understand God, and how we understand the nature of love itself.

‘Hate’ and Hate 

Jesus talkingOn the first point, it should be unproblematic to say that that the term ‘hate’ is used in different ways at different times for different situations. I mean, one of the most troubling texts in the Gospels has Jesus saying:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Most commentaries will point out that Jesus is using a hyperbolic idiom here that means something along the lines of “if you don’t love these things less than you do me.” It’s forceful, and shouldn’t be minimized, but Jesus isn’t straightforwardly commanding hate of our parents.

Still, much of the time when God’s hatred is mentioned in Scripture it is a much stronger understanding than merely “like less.” It is his strenuous, moral disapproval or opposition to. It is his righteous, judicial displeasure at evil, often involving his desire to remove the object of his displeasure. Louw-Nida describes the word for ‘hate’ that Jesus uses in Revelation, this way:

μισέω: to dislike strongly, with the implication of aversion and hostility—‘to hate, to detest.’ οἱ δὲ πολῖται αὐτοῦ ἐμίσουν αὐτόν ‘and his fellow countrymen hated him’ Lk 19:14. [1]

The implication is the whatever the Nicolaitans are teaching, it’s detestable and the only appropriate response is the same extreme displeasure that Jesus has with it. James Dunn notes that Paul similarly uses a very forceful word in Romans 12:9, implying a clear, forceful rejection of evil in our use of the gifts in the community.

While we need to be careful about taking sinful, human ideas and experiences of hate into things, it appears that the Bible gives a place for it. Even Jesus does. So, I guess an appeal to language doesn’t quite get us off the hook.

God and ‘God’ 

One other part of the problem is that we have trouble thinking about God having anything more than a strict, black or white, love or hate relationship with creation. We have trouble thinking of him in more than one role at a time. We are people with flat imaginations and so we try to come up with a flat God that suits us.

Thing is, the Scriptures give us a multi-dimensional God, with multi-dimensional relationships to the world and his creatures. I mean, we see this right we when open up the first few pages of the Bible. We find out right off the bat that God is a Creator, one who speaks all things into existence out of love and delight (Gen 1-2). We also learn in very short order that God is also a Judge, discerning right and wrong, condemning and cursing rebellion and sin, while at the same time proving to be a merciful Redeemer (Gen 3). Creator. Judge. Redeemer. Three dimensions to his relationship to his Image-bearers right there in three short chapters.

I hold to at least some form of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God isn’t something we can chop up in parts and say, “this is his love, and that part over there to the left is his holiness” or something. God’s love is holy; God’s righteousness is merciful; God’s power wise. Is it really that hard then to think describing the infinite God’s attitude towards us might require a more than one or two words, some of which might seem initially contradictory? As I noted the other day, God used more than one name to describe himself and we need all of them.

The other factor at work is that we must remember that God’s emotions are not strictly like our emotions. God is impassible, which means that his emotions are more appropriately thought of analogically as expressing his judgments about certain states of affairs, rather than adrenaline-laced flare-ups of the divine blood-stream.

Love and ‘Love’

Typically modern culture thinks of love in terms of total acceptance and affirmation. To love is to accept and affirm the beloved totally and without reservation. Following off of what we’ve seen above, the more we think about it, the more plausible it is that God’s love includes his intense displeasure towards some things in the world he loves. As I’ve noted before, Miroslav Volf  (not a Calvinist, btw) writes about the appropriateness of God’s wrath because of his love:

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pg. 139

Christina Cleveland made much the same point in talking about the rage of some in the black community over the recent injustices in Ferguson, MO: “the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.” It’s entirely appropriate to feel that same intense displeasure towards systemic racism that God does–to hate what God hates precisely because God is love.

Let’s push further, though, because the reality is that this injustice isn’t some abstraction floating off in the ether; it makes its dark home in our hearts.

God made us in his Image and so he does love us. And yet, there’s a point where it makes sense to say he hates what we’ve made of ourselves. It’s as if you knew a young man with scads of artistic potential, training, and a natural eye for beauty, who could reach the heights of a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and yet, because he took up with drugs, addiction followed and he’d be reduced to ravaged shell of his former self, barely able to scrawl out a stick figure. You still love him. You’d pity him as well. But there’s a very real, honest sense in which you could say that because you love him, you hate what he’s made of himself.

Or again, it’s like a master painter who works tirelessly on on a work of art, leaves it on a trip, and upon coming home he finds that it’s been smeared and torn up. He loves what he made, but he hates the smears and the tears that now form a part of it. Augustine says something similar here:

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

God loves us as his Image-bearers, and yet God is right to hate the way we’ve destroyed the Image. Think of it this way. Imagine God speaking to a young man in this fashion:

“You know little Johnny, that part of you that lies, is racist, and leads you to abuse women? You know what I’m talking about? Well, I want you to know it’s precious to me. I love it because I love you–all of you, just the way you are.”

Wouldn’t that be terrible? Does anybody imagine that a good, kind, gracious, just God would ever love the part of me that leads me to self-destruction? Can he? Can we? No. It’s precisely because he loves little Johnny that he is completely and bitterly opposed to that part of his character that is abusive to women, lies, and loves violence. He loves Johnny though he is racist, though he deplores the reality of his racism. Precisely because he’s good and loving he has to deplore that part of his current character. Most moral education presupposes this. I may love my little son, but I hate that he lies and will lovingly discipline that lying streak out of him if I can so that he doesn’t ruin his own life.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis (also not a Calvinist) says something similar in The Problem of Pain about what we know to be true in our own experience of guilt:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God – it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink. (pg. 51)

Or again, I love my wife soul and body and because of that, I would hate any cancer cells that were a part of her threatening to destroy her. In that sense I could say that I hate her body that was destroying her. But I only do so because I love her and her body. Actually, my wife has said that during the years when my body had been breaking down and was causing me a good deal of pain, stress, and was a continual burden, she hated my body as it currently was precisely because of her love for me.

Take Care

We need to take real care about these things and a blog post, even a long one, can’t treat the subject with the patience it deserves. A full discussion would need to address ideas like the jealousy of God as well as the very prominent theme of God’s particular love for his people Israel.

That said, language about hate and God are both dangerous when taken out of their proper biblical context. Whatever Paul means by ‘hate’, he is very clear in the passage that he doesn’t mean it to lead to retaliation or violence, but rather prayer and good in response to evil.  What’s more, I don’t really see much in the way of Scripture commanding Christians cultivating hate in their heart for persons. In fact, most of it, quite intuitively, runs the other way. The real danger of distortion and abuse means we need to tread lightly here.

At the same time, we need to take care that we don’t dispense with proper biblical teaching because of over-quick reactions to counter-intuitive truths. Some might be sniffing saying, “Really? This sounds like a roundabout defense of the despicable old ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ canard.” And you may be right to a degree. Separating sin from sinner is a difficult business. But are our other options much better? “Hate the sinner and the sin”, full stop? No, that’s not right. Or, even more foreign to biblical thought, “Love the sinner and love the sin?” You can hear Paul crying from heaven “May it never be!”

I suppose I’ll end where I started: the Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to, even when it comes to love. Then again, I’d be suspicious if it did. My love is so weak and so paltry at times. It’s really a tired, half-hearted thing if I’m honest. When I come to the love of God, the surprising, counter-intuitive love of Jesus displayed on the cross, the cross which exposes all my darknesses and shames, should I not expect to find some edges I’d never imagined?

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (762–763). New York: United Bible Societies.

Elisha Ben Kenobi and the Power of God

The other night I taught my students on subject of the power of God out of 2 Kings chapter 8. What follows is a cleaned up, very abridged version of the talk.  

Here we encounter a funny episode in the ministry of Elisha, demonstrating the Lord’s favor and supernatural power working through him. Israel and Aram were at war with each other, and apparently the unnamed king of Aram kept sending raiding parties into Israel. Time and again, though, Elisha kept warning the king of Israel of his plans and thwarting Aram’s plans. Finally, the king of Aram had enough, found out Elisha’s location and sent a platoon of men and chariots to capture Elisha in Dothan, and this is where we pick up the text:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. (2 Kings 6:15-19)

Now, this is amusing on couple of levels. First, there’s the reaction of of the servant compared to Elisha. This man opens the door, probably fresh from bed, looks up, and see the place surrounded by soldiers armed to the gills. Then Elisha says, “Nah, don’t worry about it, we got more guys.” At that point, if I’m the servant, I’m looking out and saying, “Elisha, I’m looking at the jerseys and they all say ‘Aram’ on them, what are you talking about?” At which point Elisha prays and has his eyes open, and sees the fiery chariots.

obi-wanSecond, Elisha pulls a total Jedi with the blindness above:

Elisha: “This is not the city you’re looking for.” (hand waves)
Aramean Storm Trooper: “This is not the city I’m looking for.”
E: “You want to follow me now” (hand waves)
AST: “I want to follow you now.”

Beyond the humor, though, you see the difference between the reactions of the Elisha and the servant came down to one thing: Elisha knew the power of God and the servant didn’t.

Knowing the power of God is at work on your behalf leads to a radically different approach to way believers live their lives. This is why Paul was so determined that the believers in Ephesus know what was the power at work on their behalf:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

(Ephesians 1:15-23)

You see that? One of the main things that Paul is praying for this young, struggling church to know is the muscle God is flexing on their behalf! What is the power the God is leveraging? Resurrection power!

Paul says that the power that broke through the chains of death that were holding Jesus is at work for those who believe! The power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father is being exercised on your behalf! In fact, it’s precisely because Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father ruling over all things–whether political powers, economic powers, and every other power you can think of–that we can have hope that he has power over the enemies that threaten us.

See, the young man was scared until he saw the power that God was leveraging for him and Elisha. But we have seen what the young man could not, we have seen God do something even greater. Kierkegaard has a fabulous quote on this in his journals:

God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners. 

Every single one of us who have place our faith in Jesus and been united with him by the Spirit has experience personally the miraculous, regenerating power of God. Every Sunday you sit in the pew, you’re sitting next to a miracle. You’re sitting next to someone who used to be dead, but now is alive.

So what happens when you know the power of God? Plenty, but I think at least three things mark the lives of believers who know the power of God.

1. Belief in God’s power means belief in prayer.

The first thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to pray more. Look at Paul. Paul is right here praying for the Ephesians to believe in the power of God, but he only prays that because he believes God has that kind of power. Right? That’s what we see in the story of Elisha as well.  Elisha prays for God to save because he knows the power of God to save. As James says, “You have not because you ask not”  (James 4:2). God can change things. He can improve relationships. He can heal the sick. He can lift our spirits. He can save marriages. He can save the lost. And the believer who knows this will ask in faith and begin to receive these things in accordance with God’s wisdom.

2. Belief in God’s power means trusting transformation/holiness. 

Connected to this, believing in God’s resurrection power for us, means that we have actual hope for holiness in this life. A lot of us live with this sense that, “Yes, I’m a sinner who needs to be saved. Yes, God has paid for my sins in Christ. Yes, I’m forgiven and one day I’ll be set free from sin–when I die.” But what a lot of us don’t realize is that even now God is at work and has given us the power to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. This is what Paul tells us in Romans 8:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

(Romans 8:9-12)

You don’t actually have to stay stuck where you are. God not only saves us from the guilt of sin on the Cross, but from the power of sin through his Resurrection gift of the Spirit. You don’t actually have to keep sinning over and over, never moving forward, never getting freedom, never getting better. Through union with Christ, you have the Spirit of life at work in you, enabling you to make actual progress in holiness and freedom from sin.

3. Belief in God’s power means allowing ourselves to be weak.

A lot of us live like we have to be strong all the time. That’s the American way, right? We’re rugged individualists. We don’t need help. We’re as emotionally composed, complete, and stable as our best Instagram shots say we are. Except that’s a lie. At least for a lot of us. The spiritual reality is that we’re all weak. We’re all broken. We’ve all got bits falling off and in need of repair.

Paul says that the gospel teaches us that we see God’s strength come into its own most in our weakness:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Paul knew that it was only when we stop trying to be strong, complete, whole, and everything the way the American dream says we should, we actually tap into the way of strength. See, when I’m focused on being strong, I’m not relying on God’s power. When I’m fixated on my own natural solutions to things, I don’t give God any space to work supernaturally in my life. The upside-down reality of the gospel is that it’s only when we begin to admit our weaknesses, when we proclaim our inadequacies, that we can see the omnipotence of God.

Pray that God would open your eyes to the mighty power he is leveraging on your behalf, that you might begin to live with the confidence, joy, and peace of Elisha before the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

If the Apostle Paul Was a Blogger

I was struck with a terrible thought yesterday. What if Paul had written Romans 8 in the style of a contemporary blogger? This was what I imagined might happen. 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

"Do I bold or italicize this?"

“Do I bold or italicize this?”

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending HIS OWN SON in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit! (if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.)

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (tweet this).

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

And those whom he predestined he also called,

and those whom he called he also justified,

and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. WHO SHALL SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF CHRIST?

Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am sure that:

NEITHER DEATH NOR LIFE,

NOR ANGELS

NOR RULERS,

NOR THINGS PRESENT

NOR THINGS TO COME,

NOR POWERS,

NOR HEIGHT NOR DEPTH,

NOR ANYTHING ELSE IN ALL CREATION,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

 

Reconsidering Justification with Stephen Westerholm (Book Review)

westerholmIt’s one of the odd quirks of my theological education that the New Perspective on Paul and justification is actually the first perspective on Paul I really heard when I came of age theologically. Yes, I’d grown up with sermon-level understandings of the Old Perspective, but my first book on Paul was N.T. Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said and in seminary I read James Dunn’s 700-page Theology of the Apostle Paul cover to cover in my course on Pauline theology. Add to that numerous follow-up articles and works, not least an overload of Wright (I’ve read most of what he’s written on Paul with the exception of his new volume, which I’m only 1/4 of the way through), and it’s safe to say that I’ve been familiar with the main lines of thought among some of the dominant voices in the New Perspective.

Now, of course, I’ve read some Old Perspective scholars as well. I’ve done a little time with R.B. Gaffin, Simon Gathercole, and D.A. Carson, and my favorite current interpreter of Paul with respect to the justification debates is Michael Bird, something of a Reformed mediating figure. Still, when I ran across Stephen Westerholm’s slim (only 100 pages) little volume Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme I was intrigued, so I took a little break from Wright’s big beast and gave it a go.

What caught my attention was Westerholm’s aim to:

…engage with scholars who have posed fresh questions, and proposed fresh answers regarding the familiar texts in which Paul speaks of justification. Though many of have been convinced by their interpretations, my own reinvigorated reading of Paul has led me, in these particular instances, rather to question the claims of the revisionists; I attempt here to explain why. By now a generation of scholars has arisen for whom the more recent proposals represent the only way of reading Paul to which they have been seriously exposed. I trust they may find, in reading these pages, that older interpreters saw aspects of the texts they have missed, or construed them in ways more faithful to Paul. –pg. vii

In other words, Westerholm is looking to register a bit of a minority report on the justification conversation and argue for the viability of older views on certain questions in the face of a somewhat “settled” consensus, or dealing with controversial but influential views in modern scholarship. In essence, it’s a streamlining and update of his earlier work Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics

To do so, he write six chapters, each dealing with a key issue up for grabs in the debate, while focusing on a representative or key scholar whose writings influence the discussion, and, of course, a rigorous analysis of the main texts in question.

  • Chapter 1: In the first chapter, he challenges Krister Stendahl’s contention that modern interpreter’s have been too long in the hold of Western societies quest to find a “gracious God”, instead of focusing on the real issue for Paul, table fellowship between Jew and Gentile.
  • Chapter 2: From there he moves on to modify on E.P. Sanders’ thesis about grace and works in Judaism, arguing that he’s offered a helpful corrective against the notion of “legalistic” Judaism, but has nonetheless confused Paul’s fundamental argument about grace and works.
  • Chapter 3: Westerholm then engages in a discussion about Pauline anthropology focused on Heiki Raisanen’s thesis that Paul is a bit inconsistent about whether humans can or cannot do good.
  • Chapter 4: From there, in one of the longer chapters in the book, N.T. Wright comes under fire with respect to the language of “righteousness” and “justification.” Westerholm argues essentially that he has unjustifiably restricted it to covenant duties and inclusion, instead of a broader concept of righteousness as “doing what one ought to do”, and corresponding notion of justification as acquittal.
  • Chapter 5: Wright’s buddy James Dunn figures prominently in chapter five as Westerholm seeks to establish the meaning of the phrase “works of the Law” as meaning more than just “boundary markers” keeping Jews and Gentiles apart in their little air-tight spaces.
  • Chapter 6: Finally, in a brief little chapter before the summary conclusion, he touches on Douglas Campbell’s controversial critique of “justification theory”, taking issue with his Neo-Marcionite split between a God of justice and a God of deliverance.

Now, given this brief outline of the chapters, it would be an understandable mistake to suppose Westerholm is simply trying to repristinate Pauline theology from about 50 years ago, or 500 years ago for that matter. It would be a mistake nonetheless. Westerholm takes on a number of the insights of the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship in order to nuance and fill out the Old perspective, in which case, you shouldn’t expect a simple rehash of Luther or Calvin.

Highlights – While the whole thing is worth a perusal, for my money the strongest chapters were the first couple of chapters on the “peril of modernizing Paul”, Judaism and grace, and Pauline anthropology. For example, in pushing back on Stendahl’s idea that the Western focus on “finding a gracious God” is a modernizing distortion, among other points, Westerholm points us to Paul’s earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, which has no mention of justification or the issue of table-fellowship. Right in the first chapter, Paul describes the conversion of the Gentiles thus: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9-10). Through some convincing analysis of this text, among others, Westerholm makes that case that for denizens of ancient Gentile culture used to looking for ways to avert the wrath of the gods, it seems eminently reasonable that the opportunity to find a gracious God through Christ would have been quite appealing. They wouldn’t have been to worried about getting into the Jewish covenant, but the desire for reconciliation makes all sorts of sense. In fact, he pushes further to argue that those who would sideline this “vertical” concern in order to focus on the “horizontal” one, are, in fact, in peril of modernizing Paul themselves.

Quibbles – Of course, I did have a number of quibbles. For instance, against Wright, he definitely makes the case that we can’t reduce righteousness to strict covenant keeping, or covenant-faithfulness. That said, he goes too far when he sets it off from the covenant almost entirely. Westerholm wants us to see keeping covenant obligations as simply one instance of righteousness, or “doing what one ought to do”, instead of the instance par excellence that gives the specific shape that informs the biblical account as a whole. Also, he completely denies the idea that justification has anything to do with covenant inclusion. This is probably linked to my chief frustration, which is that he basically ignored the place of union with Christ, a key element to understanding the relationship between justification and covenant (see Horton or, especially Bird here.) A further issue that probably plays into this is Westerholm’s repeated emphasis on the fact that justification is but one metaphor among many for salvation in Paul. Given that, it makes sense that he makes less of an attempt to work out the connection between covenant and justification. I also, would have liked to see more engagement with Campbell’s volume as that final chapter ends up being a bit of a tease.

Still, that said, it’s a helpful little volume. For those looking to to engage Paul’s gospel of justification from all perspectives, Westerholm’s work is a great place to start–or reconsider–your studies. 

Soli Deo Gloria

If Grace, Then Sin?

cough syrupGod saves us by sheer grace; we cannot earn it and none of our good works can procure it. God justifies us because we have trusted in and united to Christ’s work on our behalf, his sin-bearing death and his life-giving resurrection. That’s the gist of the Gospel of Paul according to the Reformation.

As we noted the other day, one of the great objections leveled against the Gospel of the Reformers was that it was an invitation to license: “If God saves us by grace, then why be good? Won’t people just keep sinning if they know they’re going to be forgiven?” This isn’t a crazy question either. Any pastor who has tried to preach the Gospel to his people will have had it come up. Paul apparently did.

In his letter to the Romans, he asks question of a hypothetical interlocutor:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1)

His answer?

“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2)

John Calvin takes up Paul’s denunciation and briefly outlines the Reformed response to the charge against the Gospel of grace, both by critics, and by sinners who’d love to take advantage of it. Commenting on the Romans 6:2, and summarizing the argument to follow:

[It is] an argument derived from what is of an opposite character. “He who sins certainly lives to sin; we have died to sin through the grace of Christ; then it is false, that what abolishes sin gives vigor to it.” The state of the case is really this, — that the faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of regeneration; nay, we are for this end justified, — that we may afterwards serve God in holiness of life. Christ indeed does not cleanse us by his blood, nor render God propitious to us by his expiation, in any other way than by making us partakers of his Spirit, who renews us to a holy life. It would then be a most strange inversion of the work of God were sin to gather strength on account of the grace which is offered to us in Christ; for medicine is not a feeder of the disease, which it destroys. We must further bear in mind, what I have already referred to — that Paul does not state here what God finds us to be, when he calls us to an union with his Son, but what it behoves us to be, after he has had mercy on us, and has freely adopted us; for by an adverb, denoting a future time, he shows what kind of change ought to follow righteousness.

Comment on Romans 6:2

Once again we come back to the reality of double-gift we receive in union with Christ. There is no grace of justification and forgiveness that comes separated from the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing regeneration. The “medicine” of grace doesn’t make sin stronger, but destroys it at the root. This is why, though we are saved not by our works, we are never saved without them. Though we are not accepted because of our obedience, the truly accepted will obey.

Paul’s solution to licentiousness is not to add more imperatives in bolder print. It is not making the indicatives dependent on the imperatives. It is preaching the indicatives with greater clarity and force that the imperatives naturally follow. Actually, it is through our teaching people clearly the truth of their saving union with Christ, the gift of forgiveness and free justification, and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit,  that the Holy Spirit actually increases their faith, thereby cutting the root of their sin: unbelief.

So, does preaching grace too strongly merely encourage sin? No, it’s our greatest weapon against it. The reality we have to continually keep in mind is that the medicine is working at the deepest core of our being. It’s the difference between an antibiotic that kills the bacteria and a cough medicine that simply deals with symptoms. Just looking at the symptoms, it might seem like it’s not having any effect. Underneath though, the deep reality is that it is eating away at the bacteria of sin in our lives, eradicating it from the inside out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Comfort for Slaves in the NT

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. –Colossians 3:22-4:1

servantOur experiences with the Civil War, the slave trade, and the Civil Rights movement made us particularly sensitive to the way certain texts have been used by those in power to oppress others. Certain verses in the NT in especially, like Paul’s household codes have been pointed to as encouraging slavery and subjugation. In some cases, they have been seen as evidence of the diversity of theologies in the NT on this issue. J.D. Crossan, for instance, sees them as evidence of a drift in the early church from a more liberated Paul (the undisputed letters), to a conservatising Pauline theologian (Ephesians, Colossians), and finally to a traditionalist disciple (the pastorals.)

Now, while I think these issues have been dealt with and adequately explained by modern NT scholars, it’s encouraging to note that long before the disturbing history of the colonial slave trade, Christians had been wrestling with what to do with these texts. For instance, commenting on this text in Colossians, Calvin doesn’t find a program for oppression, but rather a deep comfort for those who find themselves ‘under subjection':

By the former statement he means, that service is done to men in such a way that Christ at the same time holds supremacy of dominion, and is the supreme master. Here, truly, is choice consolation for all that are under subjection, inasmuch as they are informed that, while they willingly serve their masters, their services are acceptable to Christ, as though they had been rendered to him. From this, also, Paul gathers, that they will receive from him a reward, but it is the reward of inheritance, by which he means that the very thing that is bestowed in reward of works is freely given to us by God, for inheritance comes from adoption.

-Comment on Colossians 3:22-25

Calvin sees at least three sources of comfort here: First, when the slave/bondservant renders his service willingly, he transform it from an instance of subjugation, to another opportunity to freely do honor to his Lord. Instead of work stolen from him by a powerful master, the servant of Christ transvalues it in faith and renders the work an act of spiritual freedom despite whatever political situation of oppression he finds himself in. This is a spiritually subversive counsel.

Second, this is a real source of blessing because the God who has adopted us, sees our faithfulness in this difficult situation and will surely reward us for it. Trial though it may be, God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who made himself a slave for us, will see that the good works of his oppressed are crowned with glory.

Third, the justice of God is testified to here. In the world there may be no justice, but God does not judge things by outward appearance, but rather will repay masters according to the way they treat their workers. No, God has not forgotten his children in trying situations, but jealously will act in justice on their behalf. All wrongs will be righted and so the Christian can wait on the Lord, trusting him to take care of those situations which are beyond our control.

No, far from being a mere conservatising reinforcement of the status quo, we have here a pastorally appropriate word of comfort to real people dealing with a situation they likely had little control over. There is deep assurance here that the God they have found in Jesus Christ cares for the lowliest slave and that his work of judgment and salvation is not only on behalf of the masters of the world, but those whom the world has despised. For that reason, though their work is bitter, they can render it to the Lord with full assurance that it will not be in vain. While over the long haul the Gospel would prove to be corrosive of unjust systems of slavery and oppression, we see the promise of a God who sustains even in the midst of them.

Soli Deo Gloria