Mere Fidelity: The Resurrection of Politics

Mere FiOn this episode, Matt and I and our Mere-Orthodoxy’s friend Jake Meador discuss the implications of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for political theology. I had a lot of fun with this talk.

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Soli Deo Gloria

Unlock Truth for Your Kids with a Reformation Key

calvin-troubleWhen John Calvin settled into the work of Reformation in Geneva in the fall of 1536, it wasn’t because he was impressed with the state of affairs he found. In fact, Guillaume Farel had to threaten him with divine judgment on his studies if he should abandon the work Farel was certain God had placed on Calvin. But that’s another story.

Commenting on the state of affairs in Geneva, Calvin recalls:

When I first came to this church, there was next to nothing. There was preaching, but that was all. Images were hunted and burned, but there was no reform. Everything was in tumult.

He wasn’t exaggerating by much. When Geneva declared for Reformation a few months earlier, nearly the entirety of its clergy (between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s population) cleared out, leaving little in the way of an organized church.

Calvin and Farel had their work cut out for them.

You can find out the rest of the story and read about the importance of catechesis in the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Pieces on Good Friday Preaching at TGC

elgrecoGod Doesn’t Forgive Like You

Did God really forgive sin on the cross? Did he pay the debt of sin his people owed?

One line of thinking suggests that to understand the cross as penal substitution is to deny the reality of God’s forgiveness. We usually think forgiving a debt means releasing someone from the obligation of paying it, right? But then if we think of the cross as Jesus paying our debt, then on the face of things, it would seem God didn’t actually forgive it. The choice would be forgiveness or payment—one or the other, but not both. In which case, to think of the cross as substitution and payment is to rob us of a God who truly forgives.

But is that correct? Do those options capture how God relates to us?

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

3 Mistakes To Avoid in Your Good Friday Preaching

Preaching Christ and him crucified is central to the job of any gospel minister (1 Cor. 2:2). Good Friday drives this home perhaps more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher’s task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the murdered Son of God is “good news.” How is such an apparent moral rupture the centerpiece of God’s great act of atonement, of reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19)?

Christ’s cross has always provoked hostility and scorn. It confronts us with our sins, bidding the old self to come and die so that the new self may rise and live. But that’s not the only difficulty involved.

Many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross, especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions. When we misstep in this area, it gives people a distorted and damaging view of both God and his gospel. This is tragic not only because we deprive people of the gospel’s beauty, but also because, as C. S. Lewis observed, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Just as a doctor cannot carelessly wield a scalpel, so pastors cannot carelessly preach the cross, lest we bring death instead of life.

While preaching the cross can go wrong in many ways, here are three key mistakes to avoid tomorrow.

You can read the rest at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Thoughts on the Liberating Judgment of God in the Plagues

The plaguesWe’ve been going through the book of Exodus in church recently, and we just hit the section on the plagues YHWH poured out upon Egypt (sans the 10th plague on the firstborn). After listening to my pastor’s sermon on it, I was spurred to jot down a few quick thoughts on the role the plagues play in the salvation in the Exodus, as well as what it might say about God’s work in salvation today.

Salvation is Liberation. The first point is somewhat obvious, but the plagues are aimed at the liberation of Israel. Whatever else God wanted to do, it is clear that he desired Pharaoh to let his people go (Exod. 9:1). They were enslaved to the Egyptians and in the plagues, God aimed to loosen the Egyptians grip so Israel might be free from their sore labor. The same is true of our salvation today. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1) from the bondage to sin, the law, death, and the devil.

Liberation Comes Through Judgement. Secondly, liberation comes through judgement. This is a longitudinal theme that you can trace throughout all of Scripture, but the plain fact is that God’s judgment and God’s liberation are not ultimately at odds. In the plagues, God is judging Egypt, judging Pharaoh, and if you study it closely, all of the gods they worshipped (Exod. 12:12), and it is in these acts of judgment that God sets Israel free. The God of mercy, the God of liberation, the God of salvation, is one and the same with the God of judgment and acts of violent wrath.

Of course, the chief revelation of this is the cross of Christ, where the merciful judgment of God finds its perfect expression in its duality and unity, where our liberation comes through his judgment.

Liberation Is Multifaceted. I could go more into this, but in The Mission of God Christopher J.H. Wright points out that the liberation of the Exodus is multifaceted. There are spiritual dimensions, economic dimensions, political dimensions, and more in the judgments of the plagues. All at once God is unraveling, de-creating the Egyptian’s idolatrous society that depended on the broken bodies of Israelite slaves to sustain and fund it.

Now, there are differences here between the Old Testament and New Testament.  But eventually, I believe this to be true in the New Testament as well. When a people are liberated spiritually, united with Christ, justified, sanctified, and renewed in their minds, economic and political implications eventually follow.

Yes, there are places where our economic and political activity seem outwardly unchanged, though our hearts have been; we vote and purchase and pursue justice with a view towards the kingdom of God, not or our own. That said, there are others where we do things differently and social upheaval follows. A slave girl is set free from a demon and a business collapses (Acts 16). When the Ephesians turned from idols to the true God, the economy of a city built on idolatry shifted (Acts 19). When Constantine abolished the Games in light of Christian ethics, Roman culture shifted. More examples could be given, and other dimensions adduced, but suffice it to say, the salvation of God does not stay only a “spiritual” affair.

Liberative Judgments Lead to Knowledge of God. This point and the next are tightly intertwined, but the plagues of God are aimed at the knowledge of God: ”Then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7). Through the liberative judgments of God, Israel would know God as the faithful, covenant-keeper who delivered his people just as he promises their ancestors.

And not only Israel, but the Egyptians also: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the son of Israel from their midst” (Exod. 7:5). God demonstrates many things about his character and power in the plagues. For one thing, he shows up the false gods of the Egyptians—Pharaoh didn’t “know” who God was that he should obey him (Exod. 5:2). By the end of the plagues, he knew exactly who he was: the actual God who controls the Nile, the Sun, the skies, livestock, weather, and everything else the Egyptians depended on.

In much the same way, the Lord’s salvation involves a liberating knowledge that displays both the falsity of all of our idols and the faithful power of God. Only now, it comes through the cross and resurrection of the Son who disarms and exposes the powers for what they truly are (Col. 2:14-15).

Liberation is for Worship. Finally, I’ll simply note that this liberation is aimed at worship. The Lord calls Pharoah to let his people go, “so they might worship me” (Exod. 9:1; 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, etc.). Liberation is not aimed at some radically autonomous freedom to wander out into the desert to simply do whatever we please. The freedom that God delivers to Israel, and the freedom he gives to us, is the freedom of serving and worshipping the Lord whom we have come to know in his mighty acts of liberating judgment. This is why liberation from slavery to idols goes hand in hand with a knowledge of the true God: we were made for the joy of worship.

God is good and all that he does is good–even his mighty acts of judgment are aimed at liberation and worship. Let some of these thoughts frame your meditations this Holy Week as we reflect on the work of our Savior.

Soli Deo Gloria

Assorted Thoughts on #TGC17

no other gospelThis last week I had the privilege of attending TGC’s National Conference for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There was a focus on Galatians and remembering the legacy of the Reformers for the sake of the Church of today.  I have to say, overall it was a very encouraging time. I would commend the audio to all the breakout sessions to you when it becomes available at TGC’s website. For now, the main plenaries are up and worth your time.

I have no grand thesis or synthesis about it, but a few assorted thoughts now that I’m home and am somewhat recovered.

The Gospel is Really Good News. First, I just enjoyed hearing as much preaching out of Galatians as I did. I know that you can preach the gospel from any book, but you basically trip over it in every verse in Paul’s power-packed epistle. Hearing careful Scriptural preaching regarding justification, the history of redemption, Christian liberty, and the cross is one of the better ways of remembering and carrying on the legacy of the Reformation. Beyond that, it just ministered to my soul.

Older Preachers. Second, I was struck when listening to Sandy Wilson’s talk on Galatians 2 what a blessing it is to hear older preachers. When I was a younger man (say 20), I loved hearing the dynamic 30-year-olds preaching. I podcasted some of the hip, young voices whose references and humor sensibilities were closer to mine and really wanted to imitate them. Now that I’m 30, I love listening to preachers in their sixties.

Obviously, they’ve had years of practice and experience. But that’s not the whole of it. Plenty of young preachers are fine expositors and skilled orators. Beyond technical skill, though, there is a qualitative difference that comes with years of wisdom, maturity, heart-ache, and being closer to the end rather than the beginning of the ministry race. It’s like there’s a different energy. I’ve heard Tim Keller comment that with younger preachers, you’re more likely to pick up the subtext under the exposition that says, “Do you like me? Am I smart? Good? Funny?” or whatever, that is more likely to have evaporated in the years of the crucible of ministry.

I’m not sure there’s an obvious set of tips to get there besides prayer, living life, and growing up. Also, as a note to young preachers, if you listen to other preachers, mix it up. Don’t ignore the great preachers of our parents’ generation. Even if you don’t resonate immediately with the style, there’s gold to be gleaned, not just in content, but I think in spiritual presence and wisdom.

Marriage and Real Life. When you write and do the sort of work that leads to friendship through correspondence and social media, one of the great things about conferences is being able to hang out in the flesh. Email and Twitter are fine, but face to face solidifies things.

This time I was able to bring my wife along, though, and it’s interesting what a difference that makes. For one thing, I didn’t have to miss her, which is huge.

But beyond that, I was reminded of Matthew Lee Anderson’s theory that you can’t really call someone your friend until they have met your spouse. Matt is absurd to the extent to which he takes it, of course. Still, every time she met another one of my “writing friends”, it felt like they were finally meeting another part of me–or rather, a fuller version of me. It’s like two halves of your life no longer feel quite so bifurcated.

I suppose it’s a testimony to the way marriage really is a matter of joining lives, uniting the two into one flesh. There’s a real sense in which don’t really know me until you know McKenna.

Millennials and Their Parents. Beyond attending, I did give a talk on Millennials at one of the breakout sessions. That was a blessing and an honor. For those who were praying, thank you. One thing I’ll say is that I was very encouraged by the conversations I had after the session. I got the chance to talk to a few different kinds of people who came. Some were young types looking to minister to their friends in their churches. Others were older pastors who were genuinely striving to understand this generation. I already knew this, but there is good work being done in the church despite some of the stats we read.

Maybe my favorite, though, were the parents who were there. One lady in particular, Kathy, was a joy. She was one of the volunteers helping out at the event. I asked her why she was here volunteering and she replied laughing, “Millennials.” Kathy and her husband had something like 4 or 5 children in the age bracket and had just made the decision move to after 30 years at their old church to a new one that had maybe two other people their age, with the rest being Millennials. Smiling the whole time, she just said she couldn’t understand these kids or how to serve them, but she was trying.

That heart to sacrifice comfort to move, and seek to love a group she didn’t understand well, but wanted to love gave me so much hope. I told her that just being there, walking up to them, inviting them over for dinner, and being married in front of them is probably the best thing her and her husband can do to love them well. The more Kathys we have the in Church, the more hope I have for the Millennials within it.

Well, that’s it for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

communion with GodHistorian Richard Muller points out that if Reformed Orthodox theology had a “central-dogma”, contrary to most popular perceptions it wasn’t the doctrine of election, but that of the Trinity. That made intuitive sense to me when I read it. Even though I haven’t always been Reformed, the charge that it’s a sub-trinitarian tradition has never made sense to me.

Maybe that’s because one of the first books I read when I started getting into Reformed theology was John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. In it, the Puritan giant’s main aim is to present his readers with an understanding of how we are called to communion and union with the Triune God. And not just the Trinity as “God in general.” Owen shows that we are also called to appreciate and commune with and worship each person distinctly in a manner appropriate them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s really a phenomenally warm piece of Trinitarian devotional spirituality derived from sermons he preached to his congregation. I can tell you that it had a great impact on my spiritual life when I read it and I would recommend it highly.

What I didn’t know early on was that this wasn’t Owen’s only piece of Trinitarian theology. In fact, he’d written numerous volumes on it one way or another, including a number of heavily apologetic defenses like his lengthy Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined  in which he refutes the Unitarians and Socinians as well as his later A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity. These are far more technical and polemical (at least the former is) pieces aimed at dispelling error and refuting heretics carried out with great passion and meticulous care.

The thing that’s key for us to see, though, is that these two kinds of works are just two sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, it’s very common to distinguish between writers of “spirituality” and “pastoral theology” and those who care about defending doctrine and carrying out polemics. But this was far from the case for the Puritan writers like Owen and his contemporaries.

For them, the polemics protected the spirituality and the spirituality drove the polemics.

In fact, some historians like Paul Lim suggest it’s at least partially because of his polemical context that Owen was driven to pursue and lay out such a rich Trinitarian spirituality. At the time there was a tendency on the part of the Socinians (and even some Arminians) to downplay or denigrate the Trinity as useless, false, or not of fundamental importance, since it was spiritually impractical. And so authors like Owen pressed to give a counter-response and left us with rich treasures of devotional trinitarianism. You can see the same thing in Herman Witsius, for instance.

Of course, when you stop to take in the broad sweep of Church history, that can’t be too surprising. Doctrine is often clarified, developed, and re-appropriated best at precisely those times when it comes under pressure from skeptics. Without them we wouldn’t have the polemics or devotional spirituality of Athanasius on the deity of the Son, Basil on the Holy Spirit, Augustine on Grace, and on down the line we could go.

In the history of the Church and even in the Scriptures (Paul, John, Jesus, the OT prophets…), those who care most passionately for the true worship of God often end up being those who argue for it most forcefully, looking to cut off idolatry and protect true worship. Those theologians of the Church deeply invested in the spirituality of the Church have been the most passionate in her defense. In the long run, then, spirituality and polemics are not at odds.

Indeed, they actually fuel one another. Knowing the good defenses of the faith and key doctrines can often serve to make them more secure in our minds and hearts moving us to worship. At other times, worshiping in Spirit leads us to pursue a deeper knowledge of the truth, which includes its defense.

And this is why I think we should not always be dismayed or discouraged beyond comfort when doctrinal fights break out. Nor should we always avoid it for the sake of a false peace. Yes, there is something distressing about it. But we should take comfort in knowing that God can (and often will) bring great fruit from these episodes.

That said, I think there is an order which should be maintained in the long run. Polemics are conducted for the sake of worship, not the other way around. That should be obvious, and I doubt any would deny that explicitly. All the same, I think the distaste some people have for reading clear, polemical theology comes from encountering those who have made the argument the point.

Thankfully, John Owen doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Hays on Mark’s Jesus: The God Who “Walks By” On the Water

echoes of Scripture.jpgThe Gospel of John is typically acknowledged as having a high, divine Christology. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are far more disputed. In his recent, magisterial work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel Richard Hays makes a forceful case, though, that among other roles (Davidic Messiah, Son of Man, etc.), Mark intentionally (though subtly) identifies Jesus as the coming God of Israel in the flesh.

Given that the book is all about the way the Gospel writers use and appeal to the Old Testament, his mode of argument is unsurprising. Hays examine a number of key texts in Mark where Jesus is doing curious things (forgiving sin, calming the seas, leading sheep without a shepherd, etc.) and connects them to Israel’s Scriptures which show these are things only God has the right or the power to accomplish. In that light, divine activity reveals divine identity.

While each of the texts he examines are worth engaging, one text I’d never seen discussed in this respect is Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee (pp. 70-73).

Now, taken simply it seems like an obvious act of divine power, either by way of divine empowerment of a chosen agent (prophet), or direct divine presence. Though for the first, there don’t seem to be parallels.  And for those tempted to suggest it, the Exodus doesn’t fit much since there God splits the seas and lets everybody cross on dry ground. And since Elisha’s splitting the Jordan is a mini-Exodus, nix that as well.

For the second suggestion, you could argue that it connects to the theme of subduing the powers of watery chaos, which in the Old Testament was a divine act, and is emphasized in Mark 4:35-41. Still, Hays points out that there isn’t an explicit Old Testament citation, and the image of God walking on the water isn’t a common one.

So how is Hays going to connect it to the Old Testament and the identity of Israel’s God? Well, he cleverly points us to this magnificent speech from Job extolling the power of God:

His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet. (Job 9:4-13)

At first that might seem a slender thread to hang a reference on. But Hays calls our attention to a couple of confirming lines of evidence.

First, there is the basic linguistic link if you look at the Greek of Mark and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translation of Job 9.

Second, connecting the two texts would clear up an oddity in Mark’s narrative. In the story, Mark tells us that originally Jesus “intended to pass them by” (Mk. 6:48). Matthew doesn’t include that tidbit, and commentators have puzzled over it for centuries. But then we turn to Job’s speech. In it, we see him marveling over the mighty works and power of God and he says, “When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him” (Job 9:11).

Hays comments:

Thus, in Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor, as we surely realize by this time, accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus’ epiphanic walking on the sea, read against the background of Job 9, can be perceived as the signature image of Markan Christology. (72)

Third, Hays adds that the verb parelthein (passes by) “almost surely alludes” to the story of God passing Moses by in Exodus 33:17-23 and 34:6. In that story, God passes by to show him his glory from behind, as it were, because for Moses to see him directly would kill him. The Septuagint uses the same work over and over, making it almost a technical term for a divine appearance. All of that together would fit with the theme of the incomprehension of the disciples (Mk. 6:51-52).

Finally, Jesus’ words of assurance to the disciples in the boat (“It is I [ego eimi]; do not be afraid”) should probably be heard, then, as an echo of Exodus 3:14. There God reveals himself as “I am who I am” (LXX: ego eimi ho on). That phrase becomes a stock self-identifying phrase of Israel’s God throughout Scripture (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 51:12; 43:11). So Hays:

“Thus, when Jesus speaks this same phrase, ‘I am,’ in his sea-crossing epiphany, it serves to underscore the claim of divine identity  that implicitly present in the story as a whole.”(73)

Of course, this is just one teaser of a reading of one, subtle passage. But set in alongside of the rest of Hays’ dazzling exegesis of other key texts, the argument that Mark’s Jesus is only a divinely-empowered man becomes labored and torturous.

In this text, Jesus is the God of Israel who treads on the waters, who passes by, present to save, though mysterious beyond comprehension.

Soli Deo Gloria