Calvin’s Pain and Our Comfort

I’ve written about some of the physical struggles and pains that I’ve struggled with over the last few years of ministry. They can and have been trying, exhausting, discouraging, as well as humbling and sanctifying all at once. I’d love to be rid of them (and praise God he has been healing me of them slowly!), because there are times when it has felt like all too much, all too terrible, and utterly pointless.

It comes as no little encouragement then to hear Michael Horton speak briefly on Calvin’s great many horrifying illnesses, and the way God used that to shape his pastoral theology. It begins to explain why the Institutes were a great comfort to me when this whole episode began.

I would encourage those of you suffering with chronic illnesses, whether in vocational ministry, or simply a saint worried that your suffering is hindering your service to the Lord to watch this and be blessed.

 (HT: Justin Taylor)

Looking forward to Horton’s new book Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for Strength in Temple-Building

solomons_temple_jerusalemThis is a prayer in light of Haggai’s call to the returned Exiles to rebuild the Temple, in spite of the opposition they faced. This is now our prayer as we strive to build up the Temple of Christ, the Church:

Grant, Almighty God, that as we must carry on a warfare in this world, and as it is thy will to try us with many contests,—O grant, that we may never faint, however extreme may be the trials which we shall have to endure: and as thou hast favored us with so great an honor as to make us the framers and builders of thy spiritual temple, may every one of us present and consecrate himself wholly to thee: and, inasmuch as each of us has received some peculiar gift, may we strive to employ it in building this temple, so that thou mayest be worshipped among us perpetually; and especially, may each of us offer himself wholly as a spiritual sacrifice to thee, until we shall at length be renewed in thine image, and be received into a full participation of that glory, which has been attained for us by the blood of thy only-begotten Son. Amen.

–John Calvin, Lectures on Haggai

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Theft, Lenten Reading, and The Final Days of Jesus

Book theft is real.

Book theft is real.

True story: I had a book stolen out of the mail the other day. All I received was an empty package with a sticker on it, notifying me that the last post office to handle it had received it in that condition. Somewhere out there, there is a book thief who is working their way through my review copy of Andreas J. Kostenberger  and Justin Taylor’s new volume, The Final Days of Jesus: The Last Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived. I’m not too mad about that, though. Thankfully, Justin was kind enough to send another. Also, I’m hopeful the perpetrator in question will repent–maybe when he gets to the part about the thief on the cross next to Jesus.

In any case, I’m kind of glad I hit a delay in receiving my copy. It gave me time to reconsider my approach. Initially, I had planned on reading through it quickly and doing a full review, but the closer we move to the Lenten season, it makes sense to take it up as my yearly Lenten reading. For many of us, Lent is observed by giving something up–by sacrificing some food, activity, etc. in order to prayerfully remind ourselves of the course of Jesus’ life, ministry, and sufferings, as well as prepare for the joy of Easter. That can be a good and holy thing. One other way of celebrating Lent is to take up something–additional prayers, Scripture reading, acts of service, and so forth.

final daysIn that spirit, I’ve made it a habit over the last few years to make sure and read through at least one work focusing on Jesus’ life, or atoning work, to prepare myself for Holy Week. After skimming through the intro and the layout of the Kostenberger and Taylor’s work, I’ve decided this will be a perfect choice for my Lenten reading this year. For those of you looking to embrace a similar practice I’d like to encourage you to pick up their work as well.

Why? Well, a few reasons. First, it’s a cleanly laid out book focusing on the last week of Jesus’ ministry and passion, where all of his ministry, both in word and deed, are coming to their revelatory culmination in his death and resurrection. Basically, if you don’t get this week, you don’t get Jesus.

Second, Kostenberger and Taylor have taken every text from the 4 Gospels, arranged them in a harmonious, historically-sensitive manner, and then briefly commented on each of them, bringing out their theological and spiritual significance.

Third, it’s solid work. But that’s unsurprising. Andreas Kostenberger is a noted New Testament research scholar out of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an expert in the Gospels. Justin Taylor is a careful writer, sharp theological mind, and experienced publisher at Crossway. But don’t take my word for it. Here are just a few endorsements from actual scholars and respected pastors:

“This is a book about the most important person who ever lived during the most crucial week of his life. If you want to get to know the person and teachings of Jesus in the context of an engaging story with practical commentary, this book is for you. It is biblical, personal, and transformational.”
Darrin Patrick, Pastor, The Journey, St. Louis, Missouri; author, For the City and Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission

“An enlightening and edifying look at the most important week in history. Both those who want to know more about the history and those who long to behold the wonder will find much to love about this great work. One gets the sense that we should proceed through these pages on our knees.”
J. D. Greear, Lead Pastor, The Summit Church, Durham, North Carolina; author, Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved

“You may be wondering what can be done to make Christ’s last week come alive in ways it hasn’t before. It would help to understand the historical background and cultural script a little better, but you don’t want a big book. It would help, too, if your authors were trustworthy, knowledgeable evangelical scholars who could write clearly for laypeople. Look no further—this is the book for you!”
Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

“Jesus’s last week shook but also saved the world. From Palm Sunday to Easter morning, each day and encounter were critical. This book leads the reader step by step along Jesus’s route from triumphal entry to the cross and finally to glory. Numerous maps and diagrams shed fresh light on each Gospel’s claims. We are reminded not only of what Christ did but also where his way points us now. An excellent beginning-to-intermediate guide!”
Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Holy Week is arguably the most sacred time of year for Christians. Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor provide a simple yet eloquent survey of the final week of Jesus’s life. They take readers on a pilgrimage through the Gospels and invite us to follow Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on to the dark and tragic moments of Golgotha, and through to the glorious and unspeakable joy at the feet of the risen Jesus. In short, this is a wonderful resource for individuals, families, and fellowships to learn more about the Easter story, the greatest story ever told.”
Michael F. Bird, Lecturer in Theology, Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry

“A clearly presented overview of the most important week in world history. Brief, helpful comments illuminate the biblical story and bring home its enduring and life-changing message.”
Douglas J. MooWessner Chair of Biblical Studies, Wheaton College

The Final Days of Jesus helps believers take note of the historical events leading up to Jesus’s death on the cross. Readers are challenged to see the provocation that Jesus’s message and life represented, leading to his arrest and execution. The book demonstrates that historical facts and Christian worship can and should go hand in hand.”
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mary F. Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; author, Paul the Missionary

So then, if you’re looking to take a focused look at the work of Jesus this Lenten season, I’d suggest you head on over to Amazon and pick yourself up a copy. Maybe get a couple and go through it with some friends at church. It promises to be an edifying work.

Soli Deo Gloria

My Evangelical Story Isn’t So Bad (Or, a Ramble on Experience, Biography, & Theology)

evangelicalsCultural narratives come and go. For instance, looking back at the movies of 50 or 60 years ago, narratives of patriotism and love of country were pretty popular. Nowadays, stories of suspicion and conflicted loyalties are far more common. I mean, in The Avengers even Captain America has to have his doubts-about-my-country moment before he dons the flag again, in order to be believable or appealing to us.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen one narrative, in particular, rise to ascendancy: the story of broken religious faith–either to be recovered, transformed, or possibly forfeited forever. While they can be found in most traditions, given my own context, I’m thinking of the “I had a terrible Evangelical experience” story in particular. An expanding number of blogs, long-form articles, and memoirs dedicated to telling these stories have emerged, and sold quite well. Indeed, it seems to be a wave with no end currently in sight.

Of course, even those specific to Evangelicalism come in different forms. For some, there’s a story of flight from churchly abuse and control. Others share their experiences in “purity culture” with its repressive and distorted teaching on sexuality and personhood. Still others give us insight into communities of scared, intellectual obscurantists set to repress all questions and intellectual honesty. A lot of it is really sad, heartbreaking stuff, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, like I said, the stories themselves are just sad. I think it would be difficult to read more than a few of them and remain unmoved by the pain of some of our brothers and sisters. Beyond that, at times, they seem to have the unfortunate effect of playing into the larger cultural perceptions/misconceptions people have about Christianity in general, and theologically conservative Evangelicalism in particular. To outsiders there’s a little bit of the “see, I knew it” effect at work. Of course, if it’s the truth, well, there’s no sense hiding it and it’s just something we have to deal with.

I think the thing that weighs on me, though, is that most of this doesn’t reflect the majority of my own very positive experience being raised in Evangelicalism. In other words, I’m saddened because I know it doesn’t have to be that way–I’ve seen it myself.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way – Now, I won’t lie, I’ve seen my fair share of church wreckage. I’ve been at church at least twice a week for most of my life. My mom has led women’s Bible studies since before I can remember, and my dad’s been an usher and an elder of sorts, which means I’ve been there for the pettiness and hypocrisy. I’ve watched churches split because of pride and an overweening sense of power. I’ve sat in worship services that look like concerts and heard sermons that made me long for a Tony Robbins pep talk. I’ve mourned pointless, commercialized building projects put ahead of local service. I’ve even told my own story about the awkwardness of growing up Palestinian in a Pro-Israel tribe. In other words, I have plenty of criticisms of what we might think of as generalized Evangelicalism.

Overall, though, growing up Evangelical has been a mostly positive thing for me.

I’ve been taught my whole life that Jesus loves me like the Bible says he does and that cared about me enough to die and rise again for me. I’ve had a number of good, humble, and faithful leaders and pastors who have lived out that kind of Jesus-love towards me. I’ve had elders praying for me during sicknesses. I’ve had church families deliver meals to my house when my mom was recovering from surgery. I’ve had small group leaders guiding me and my friends through awkward transition years, faithfully pointing me to Jesus when I was tempted to look elsewhere.

I don’t think I was taught anything super weird or repressive about sex. I mean, I was in the kind of junior high youth group that made goofy videos with Barbie and Ken dolls to lighten the mood, while they encouraged hormonal 13-year-olds to pursue Jesus’ vision for sexuality without shame or fear. There was definitely A LOT of grace. And while I recently have gravitated towards the Reformed tradition, partially for it’s unabashed enthusiasm for cultivating the intellectual life, I’m not sure I ever felt mentally stifled in the churches I grew up in.

I’ve seen and been a part of really great, faithful, welcoming Evangelical churches. They’ve provided resources and teaching for cultivating healthy, biblical sexuality. They’ve cared about the outsider. They’ve ministered to the poor. They’ve funded overseas missions, built orphanages, and schools. They’ve created spaces for people with questions. They’ve pointed us towards God and our neighbor with humility and passion. In other words, I’ve grown up in a sort of gentle Evangelicalism that I don’t recognize as the background to these stories of broken faith, or betrayed trust.

So, once again, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Biography and Theology – Where am I going with all of this? Well, there are a few places I could go, I suppose, but the reality I’ve been working through, again, is recognizing how much biography influences theology, and working through the implications for our conversations with each other. A number of these stories of pain or frustration are told as the background to shifts in theological perspective. Some of these shifts are ones that, honestly, I think are wrong and ultimately harmful. From my perspective, they represent understandable over-reactions to the association of good doctrine with bad practice. I’ve said this before, but in theology, “abuse doesn’t take away proper use.”

Still, these are real experiences and we have to deal with that as we talk about the church, theology, and Evangelicalism. Often-times I’m so locked into seeing people as positions to be corrected, I forget that they are storied-people to be heard. People respond viscerally to words and concepts that have functioned fairly positively in my own life, many times because of our differing stories. My fairly positive Evangelical experience isn’t the only one out there, which is probably part of what accounts for the relative slowness with which I’ve embraced the theological changes I have made. I haven’t been in as much of an existential rush. If I don’t recognize that, I probably won’t be of much use to them as anything more than a sparring partner.

Of course, the opposite is also true. I suppose it’s very hard when you’ve had these difficult experiences to stand back and think, “Well, maybe that’s not the only way of believing X doctrine. Maybe there are sounder, more healthy ways to approach X.” Instead, I’d imagine it’s probably pretty easy to fall into, “You’re an Evangelical, and therefore you and your churches are probably just like the people who hurt me. Whenever you say X, you mean Y hurtful thing” and so forth. But, honestly, that’s not always the case. Just as those of us with positive Evangelical experiences need to realize our stories aren’t the only ones out there, it might help if those with more negative stories try to recognize that same reality in reverse. The positive stories are real too. It’s not all that bad.

Bringing it Back – Reformedish Evangelical that I am, I can’t help but see this as another invitation back to the Scriptures. If we’re going to have conversations that amount to something more than a back and forth exchange of invincible moral experiences, we need to, as I’ve said before, understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience.

We need to see that in the Bible we have the normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story gets the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited, weighed down with baggage, or ignorantly blind like ours tend to be. It’s the story big enough to encompass all of our stories without denying, or ignoring them.

As we re-engage the text then, there’s hope that the same Spirit who inspired these words might illuminate them, opening us up to his unchanging truth together. Those of us with comfortable Evangelical experiences might be awakened from our slumber to deal with the very uncomfortable struggles of others. And those of us with hurts and scars might be willing to receive healing medicines we’ve formerly rejected as poisons.

This was all a sort of incomplete ramble, of course, but for some of us it might be a start.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Lie About God is a Lie About Life

liesOur culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heresy’ used on your average blog or article it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It is thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m clueless. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians? Maybe frighten some physicists?)

In some quarters, heresy is sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that we entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness.

So Why Does Jesus Think Differently? So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Because they do. Very differently. A sampling:

Jesus: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Paul: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

John: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we are to care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

To sum up, we might ask a final question: “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” Because He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hey, So I’m Going on The Radio Today–in Pittsburgh

word fmI wrote a little post on the problem of evil yesterday that gathered some attention. John Hall and Cathy Emmons from 101.5 Word-FM in Pittsburgh have graciously asked me to take part in a little phone interview on the radio with them on that subject this afternoon. I’ll be chatting with them at 4:40 pm Eastern and 1:40 pm Pacific time. You can tune in to listen live online at their website HERE.

It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m excited, but I’d love it if you’d take a minute to pray for me today as well. Thanks reading (and maybe listening).

Soli Deo Gloria

A (Very) Brief, Gospel-Centered Defense Against the Problem of Evil

christ-on-the-cross-1587In brief, the classic problem of evil stands as the greatest, most persuasive, damning, and straightforward objection to the existence of God, especially the Christian one. The classic form dating back to Epicurus and retooled by David Hume runs something like this:

  1. If God exists he is all-good and all-powerful.
  2. If he is all-good he will want to remove evil from the world
  3. If he is all-powerful he can remove evil from the world.
  4. There is evil in the world.
  5. Therefore, God doesn’t exist, or he is not all-good, or all-powerful.

Straight-forward enough, right?

Still, in recent developments in the philosophy of religion, it has been noticed that the strict version just outlined can be evaded by pointing out that if God had a good enough reason to, he might allow evil to exist while being all-powerful and all-good. The skeptical rejoinder, then, is that there is no such reason forthcoming from believers to justify all of the apparently pointless evils we see in the world.

Now, while there’s a great deal of lengthy literature on the subject (some of which I’ve read) about the logical, evidential, and powerful existential forms of the argument, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in nuce, the outlines of a logically-intuitive, and even pastorally-comforting ,defense against the problem of evil are given to us in the simple Gospel story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ itself.

Note, this is not a theodicy--an explanation of why God allows evil to exist–it is only a defense, showing that it is logically possible for God and evil to exist. With that clarification made, here’s my attempt at a Gospel-centered defense against the problem of evil in a nutshell:

  1. If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, I have good reason to believe both that he exists, and that he is unfathomably powerful.
  2. Furthermore, if he is good enough to send his only-begotten Son to die on behalf of a sinful, rebellious world he loves, he is unfathomably good.
  3. Next, if God is wise enough to use what is objectively the most horrifying, and initially apparently pointless, event in human history–the unjust murder of the Godman–for the salvation of the world, then it is entirely reasonable to trust he has a good enough reason for allowing the evil that he currently does.
  4. Finally, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the promise that ultimately evil will be judged, removed, and made right.There is comfort and hope for the future.

All of these points could be filled out at length, of course; this is a nutshell–and a very small one at that.  And yet, it is enough to set us marveling at the way, once again, all of life’s deepest, most troubling questions find their answer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria