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Archive for June, 2012

The Blessing of a Boring Testimony

Posted on June 29, 2012

My youngest daughter Peace was participating in a missionary trip to Mexico years ago with a local evangelical church. This was a basically good group, as far as I can tell, though I would, of course, disagree with some of their theological distinctives.

She asked me, “Dad, before we go, we’re required to give the group a public testimony of our salvation experience. I know I’m saved. What should I say? A lot of the other kids have really spectacular testimonies, but mine is so boring. I was trained in a Christian home and heard the gospel from an infant and trusted the Lord. I wish my testimony were more exciting!”

I smiled with gratification, and told her of the blessing of a boring testimony.

One of the great heresies (the word is not too strong) of the church today is the notion that one must fall into deep depravity in order to be “truly saved by grace,” and that since this usually excludes small children, they need to “grow up” and “sin real good” before they can become real Christians. One is immediately reminded of Paul’s dire comment to the Romans:

For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner? And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just. (Rom. 3:7-8)

God’s grace is not glorified because of sin; it is glorified in spite of sin. Obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22).

Many are ignorant of the vital truth that God’s preventive grace is to be more highly prized than H is reclaiming grace. It is glorious grace in both cases, but God’s grace is exalted more in what it prevents than in what it repairs.

The wise Solomon declared, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh (Ecc. 12:1).

We learn of Timothy, to whom Paul writes, “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).

My daughter’s paternal grandmother was converted as a Sunday school child at nine years old. Her father himself was converted at two or three years old, and cannot even remember the glorious experience. Some overzealous but ignorant Christians have told me this is proof I’m not a Christian. I ask them, “Do you believe that salvation presupposes the new birth?”

“Yes, of course it does,” they reply

I then pose: “Is physical birth a rather precise metaphor for the new birth.”

“Well, yes, that’s why God used it.”

“Well, did you remember your physical birth?”

End of argument.

No one, of course, is born a Christian. From birth we are all the children of the first Adam and are headed to Hell (Rom. 5:12-21). No one is saved by anything other than the grace of God manifested in the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are either saved or we are lost (Rom. 14:6). There is no third category.

But we can experience salvation from a very young age, in fact, from our youth. Little children who, as it were, bounced on Jesus’ lap, believed on Him (Mt. 18:6). Indeed, while the modern evangelical message is generally that children must have an “adult” conversion experience, Jesus taught just the opposite: adults must have a child’s conversion experience (Mt. 18:3).

May God give us a massive harvest of young people nourished in the gospel from their infancy! May we, by the grace of God, raise up an entire generation of warriors for the Faith, protected from many of the tragic consequences of sin into which those not blessed with a Christian upbringing have fallen.

One of the most moving statements I’ve ever read is that of the French Reformed baptismal liturgy, recorded in Philip J. Lee’s masterful Against the Protestant Gnostics:

Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, He has fought, He has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you He uttered the cry “it is finished.” For you He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you He intercedes. For you, even though you do not know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, “We love Him because He first loved us.”

Amen and Amen!

Is Obedience a Christian Duty?

Posted on June 28, 2012

Mark Galli, Managing Editor of Christianity Todaywrites:

We are in the bad habit of thinking that ethics is a REAL SERIOUS BUSINESS [his caps], that our welfare and the welfare of the world depend on its proper execution. Not quite. The gospel is the end of ethics in this sense. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. The welfare of the world is a settled issue. Someone has already won the Masters [golf tournament]. The key question for believers is not “What are you going to do to earn God’s blessing, or to attain a good life, or to thank God for all he has done for you, or to make the world a better place?” No, it’s “What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything?”

The wonderful thing about the gospel is that it takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy—precisely because we don’t have to do it anymore but get to do it in freedom.

This is classic antinomianism.  The epithet stings.  But it is true.  Antinomianism is not the notion that Christians should not obey God’s ethical standards; it is the notion that they may not obey them.  In Mark’s words, now that you’re a Christian, “[Y]ou don’t have to do anything.” We don’t obey because God requires us to obey but because we want to — we delight to obey; we are not required to.

How, then does Mark explain texts like Hebrews 12:14, which asserts that without holiness, no one will see the Lord (the context makes clear that it’s existential or sanctificational holiness the author has in mind, not the imputed holiness of Jesus Christ)? What about Hebrews 6:1–12, which commands believers to strive in faithfulness so that in this way they can inherit the promises of eternal life?  What about 1 Corinthians 6:9–10:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.

If God prohibits drunkenness and homosexuality (for example) on pain of exclusion from Christ’s Kingdom, does he not also command us to abstain from these sins?

Mark writes that “gospel … takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy,” but Paul (for one) seemed quite willing to lay down ethics as duty. In 1 Timothy 6:17, he “charges” (paraggello, commands) the wealthy not to trust in their wealth, but in God alone. (There are many such explicit commands: see, for example, 1 Cor. 7:10; 1 Thes. 4:11; 2 Thes. 3:4). 

Paul commands Christians to obey. 

In the late 90’s I engaged in a debate with popular evangelical radio teacher Bob George over the validity of the Old Testament moral law.  His position, which he declared plainly, was that in the Old Testament era God made demands of his people but “under grace” (the New Testament era) believers serve God out of gratitude and not out of duty.  I reminded him (and the radio audience) that Paul no less than Moses made demands of his Christian audience, but George stuck by his guns of insisting that obedience is not a requirement in God’s gracious dealings with his people. So far as I can tell, this is Mark Gallli’s position also.

And it is wrong.  It is lawless. 

The Gospel liberates us from the penalty of sin — in this we can rejoice.  But the Gospel does not liberate us from the duty of obedience. 

What Is the Gospel?

Posted on June 25, 2012

So here is the problem. Man is a guilty sinner, God is a holy God. How can the two be brought together? The answer is the cross of Christ.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Cross[1]

 

“God was in Christ,” writes Paul to the church at Corinth, “reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing [counting] their trespasses to [against] them (Second Epistle, 5:19)

Two thousand years ago, God acted dramatically in Jesus of Nazareth to bring back to Himself an estranged human race.  This is the world’s Good News — its best news, in fact — and in the Bible it is called the Gospel.[2] It was this message that formed the heart of the mission of Jesus’ earliest followers after His death and resurrection.  This kerygma the apostolic proclamation, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, is revealed fully in the New Testament (see chapter 4).  This, in fact, is likely the chief role of the New Testament in God’s plan — to disclose the Good News to all of humanity. In theological language, the New Testament is principally the enumeration, interpretation and application of the redemptive events centered in the Person of Jesus Christ.[3]  The Good News is that God hasn’t left us to ourselves.  The Good News is that God has done something by means of Jesus  — He has taken the initiative — to bring us back into His good graces.

What Is the Bad News?

The backdrop of the Good News is the bad news.  In fact, we won’t understand how good the good news really is until we grasp how dreadful the bad news is.

The bad news is that humanity, and each of as individuals, is sinful.  What is sin?  Sin is violating God’s will for us as His rational creatures: breaking God law — and His heart (1 Jn. 3:4).  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created righteous.  But they were also created with free will.  They exercised that will to turn against the benevolent God Who created them.  Under the serpent’s seduction, they wanted their way rather than God’s way.  They wanted self-autonomy.  This is the heart of Original Sin — man’s way rather than God’s way.

We — all of us, all humans (except Jesus) — have followed our first parents in this sin.  We’re complicit in their sin (Rom. 5:12-21).  We are liars and adulterers and hypocrites and rebels and racists and sexual deviants and cowards and bullies.  We slander and covet and lust and profane God’s holy name.  We’re envious and proud and resentful and thoughtless and uncharitable and faithless and domineering and self-serving (Rom. 3:10-23).  Even our apparent virtues become vices in our proud, sinful hands.  We’re a bad lot, we sons of Adam, we daughters of Eve.  Sin is a self-inflicted moral disease, and it plagues each of us.

This disease wreaks all the havoc we see in the world.  It alienates us from one another.  It alienates us from our environment, God’s good creation.  It even alienates us from ourselves — our greatest battles are those that enflame from our own bosom. Sin sets man not just against his fellow man and against his environment, but also against himself.  Man is at war with himself because of his sin (Jas. 4:1-4).[4]

Worst of all, sin sets us against God.  Sin alienates us from our Creator (Is. 59:2; Eph. 2:12).  God is a righteous God, and we are unrighteous people.  God created us for fellowship with Him, but sin destroys that fellowship.  This sin elicits a penalty — death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23a).  God is righteous, and His righteousness demands that sin be dealt with righteously.  Consequently, man in his natural state stands under a divine death sentence: eternal judgment by God (Jn. 3:18-20).  If all men and women are sinners, and if God visits His judgment on all sinners, then the human race is condemned to God’s judgment.  This is the bad news.

The Good News is that the bad news is not the last news.

Good News for Sinners

God is not only a righteous God.  He’s also a loving God (1 Jn. 4:8).  When Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t throw them on the cosmic ash heap.  God created man (male and female), with His express purpose to enjoy us in an eternal relationship; and He loves man as His good creation — a creation that has gone bad, but a good creation from His hand.  In His love, God set in motion a great reclamation project.  God’s plan for humanity is to redeem, not destroy.  God is not just man’s awesome judge; God is man’s glorious Redeemer.

That redemption is found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, very God of very God, in the words of the Nicene Creed.  In His cruel death on the Cross, Jesus carried the punishment for the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29; Rom. 5:6-11; 1 Pet. 3:18).  In His resurrection from the grave, He broke that very power of death that had shackled man from the Garden of Eden, and thereby showed God’s acceptance of Christ’s death as sufficient (1 Cor. 15:35-58).  This redemptive work reconciled man to God (Eph. 2:11-13).  Man is no longer alienated from God.  Why?  Because Jesus fulfilled the demand of God’s justice — death, the penalty for sin (Rom. 3:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).[5]

God’s love and His justice meet and look each other squarely in the eye at Calvary’s cross.  God loves sinful man, but His righteousness won’t allow Him to excuse man’s sin.   The Cross is the great, public demonstration both of God’s justice toward and His love for humanity.  God imposed the righteous penalty for man’s sin, and then God Himself in His matchless love paid the penalty in the Person of His Son, Jesus.  God judged man, and then God Himself suffered His own judgment in Jesus Christ.  Jesus died in the place of sinful man.  And then Jesus rose triumphant over that sin, and ascended to sit with God in Heaven.

This is why Paul summarizes the Good News as the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Appropriating the Good News

The Good News carries a universal dimension.  Jesus died for the sins of the world (1 Jn. 2:2).  But all people are not saved.  Salvation is not for all without qualification, but only for those who trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord.  Jesus’ death and resurrection are sufficient for all but only effective for those who believe (Jn. 3:16-18).

Faith is the all-important factor here.  God wanted to remove from salvation all self-autonomy (which got man into trouble in the first place).  So He arranged it that man could never get the credit.  God alone gets the credit for man’s salvation.  Since salvation is not man’s plan or by man’s achievement, man can never boast (Eph. 2:8-9).  Man gets the benefit of Jesus death and resurrection only if he believes — if he trusts in Jesus and Him alone for His salvation (Rom. 3:27-5:5; 10:9).  Man is saved by trusting in Jesus Christ alone. Of course, this presupposes that man understands and accepts both the horror of his own sin and state, and the wonder of God’s love, and therefore longs for that love and relationship.  This faith, which is God’s gift, rests on the promises of God — that if we trust in Jesus alone and all that He has done to redeem us, we will have eternal life.  God requires that we rely on the work of Another, not on ourselves.  Salvation is entirely by God’s grace.  God actually saves us; He doesn’t help us save ourselves. Faith means resting on Jesus, not on ourselves. [6]

But this faith is active, not passive — it hangs onto the good promises of God in Jesus and consecrates oneself to the Risen Christ.[7]  It is not merely assent to religious beliefs, even the right beliefs; in addition, faith casts the sinner’s life entirely on Jesus Christ.  In appropriating His work to us, faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.  Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:14-26).  This faith that saves carries with it repentance, turning away from sin and turning toward God (Ac. 3:19; 2 Cor. 7:10).  This faith that saves submits to Jesus as Lord and Master — it makes one a disciple (Mt. 16:24-27).[8]  This faith submits, not only out of duty, but also out of amazement, and with a responsive love toward our merciful Lord.

The Good News puts man back into his proper place — as the glorified servant of God.  And the Gospel exalts Jesus to His proper place — as the cosmic Lord and King of the living and the dead (Ac. 2:29-39; Rom. 14:9).

The faith that saves finds all its salvation, all its hope, all its peace, all its destiny in Jesus of Nazareth.  In the lyrics of Robert Lowry’s memorable hymn: “This is all my hope and peace, Nothing but the blood of Jesus/ This is all my righteousness, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  Salvation is entirely by God’s grace, appropriated by an energetic, obedient faith in Jesus alone.

Conclusion

If you understand and confess, your sins will be forgiven.  God will wipe away all of your sins in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in Whom you trust.  You will stand in Jesus’ righteousness, justified in the sight of God.  God will give you His Holy Spirit, Who will fill you and seal you until the day of your redemption.  God will transform you from a rebel into an obedient son or daughter.  You will be His disciple all the days of your life.  You will become a member of the Lord’s army, His church, called to exert stewardship of the earth for Christ the King, looking toward the day when all the nations bow in submission to King Jesus (Phil. 2:5-11).  At Christ’s Second Coming, you will be resurrected to bodily life on a renovated, resurrected earth; and you will live eternally on this renewed earth with all the saints and with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Rev. 21:1-4).  This eternal life is in Jesus Christ and in Him alone.

The Good News is that God has overcome the bad news in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


[1] (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1986), 33.

[2] Alan Richardson, “Gospel,” in ed., Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible (New York: MacMillan, 1956), 100.

[3] George E. Ladd, “The Knowledge of God: The Saving Acts of God,” in ed., Carl. F. H. Henry, Basic Christian Doctrines (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 7-13.

[4] P. Andrew Sandlin, “Global Ecology and Godly Stewardship,” Free Inquiry, April-May, 2008, 30-32.

[5] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955, 1960).

[6] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), ch. 4.

[7] Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 1:223-227.

[8] James I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation — New Challenges to the Gospel: Universalism, and Justification by Faith,” in eds., Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 130-131.

Romancing Utopia

Posted on June 25, 2012

I detest the notion of a new dawn in which Homo sapiens would live in harmony. The hope this utopia engenders justified the bloodiest exterminations in history.

 

François Bizot[1]

In his brief but weighty tract Communism: A History,[2] Harvard historian Richard Pipes observes what others before him[3] have noted — the driving force behind Marxist regimes of the 20th century was nothing less than to “creat[e] an entirely new type of human being” (8-9).   The underlying goal was not economic, but ontological.   Acquisitiveness is a trait cultivated by capitalist societies, according to Marxists, but it can be stripped from man’s consciousness by careful reconditioning.   Man can be broken, remade and purged of all self-interest and recalibrated to submit joyfully to “the collective” in the form of the state.   The goal of the most consistent Marxists, therefore, was a political order resting on a pliant, virtuous populace.   This goal was more poignant in China than the Soviet Union.   Mao was the force behind Communist “brainwashing” and “reeducation.”   The goal was not merely to change Chinese behavior (by offering sufficient incentives — anybody could do that) but to change citizens’ very consciousness.   The most dramatic and harrowing example of this program, however, was Pol Pot’s Cambodia.   The leaders of the Khmer Rouge got their training in Paris (Pol Pot himself flunked out), where they imbibed the writings of the Romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who depicted man as born free, virtuous and happy in the “state of nature” but subsequently corrupted by human society and its institutions.   Pol Pot was convinced that if he could restore the “state of nature” in Cambodia — annihilating all vestiges of the previous civilization — he could create the New Man and the New Order.   To that end the Khmer Rouge forcibly abandoned all cities for the countryside, created a totally agricultural society, jettisoned the calendar and started at “Year 0,” forced children to betray parents, obliterated all non-statist institutions like the family and church, and tortured and murdered most Cambodians linked to the old regime (“The killing fields”).   The philosophy was: If humans are not with the program, we must annihilate them and create humans who are with the program.

Mao, Pol Pot’s ideological mentor, thought he could create a utopia, the New Order obliterating the dark, exploitative capitalist past.   No task was too hard:   “We shall teach the sun and moon to change places.   We shall create a new heaven and earth for man” (130), Mao declared.    This astounding, harrowing utopianism can be accomplished only at the expense of multitudes of human lives. [4]   All statist utopias end in dystopias.   Every attempt to create heaven on earth in the end creates a living hell.   Why?   Man made in the image of is not plastic; he is deeply resistant to fundamental change apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.   Man cannot change man; only God can change man.   Of course, if like the Marxists, one loses hope in the power of a sovereign God to change humanity, he must vest that sovereignty in the power of man — and generally in the secular state.   No more pernicious formula for inhumanity could be devised.

“Christian” Utopias

Though less destructive, ecclesial and familial utopianism also dehumanize.   The mad attempts to create the “model church” occupied by model Christians — the Green Berets for Jesus — is a perversion of the Biblical conception of the church (1 Cor. 12:22-24).   Ecclesial utopias, ruled by tyrannical ideologues that are quite certain that they (and few others) understand The Truth (just as the Marxists believed they understood it) decimate lives, shipwreck families, and damn souls.   All in the name of godly faith.

Familial utopians (usually fathers) covet the “perfect family,” and are willing to wreak havoc on wives and children — and themselves — to produce that idyllic family.   The wife is not permitted her own opinions but must march in lockstep to her dictator-husband; the children are treated and expected to act as miniature adults (an Enlightenment trait); the church must bow to the wishes of the dictator-husband.

Then there are the ultra-conservative political utopians, mirror images of the ultra-Left: “America is an evil nation, and we should shout ‘Glory!’ when any tragedy befalls her”; “George W. Bush is an idolater who may have known about 9-11 beforehand”; “The Christians in Congress are imposters since they voted for bills that didn’t dismantle the state as quickly as we want”; and other such stupidities.   These folks (thankfully, they are few) would find something to criticize in Heaven — utopia is always the impossible dream, always just beyond the grasp.

Utopians in politics, family or church are a menace.

Beware the utopians.


[1] François Bizot, The Gate (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 6-7.

[2] Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2003).

[3] For example, Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988).

[4] Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)

The Deity of Jesus Christ as Jewish Monotheism

Posted on June 24, 2012

My Christology will never be the same.

In his God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament, Richard Bauckham argues that:

  1. The deity of Jesus as an aspect of orthodox Christology did not develop in the patristic church but was already a tenet of the first (Jewish) church that had sufficient categories to identify Jesus of Nazareth with the one God of Israel. Orthodox Christology was developed by Jews, not Gentiles, who (rightly) piggybacked on it.
  2. Jesus is intrinsic to the unique identity of God such that if we do not understand Jesus, we do not rightly understand God.
  3. The OT already contains adumbrations of divine identity (e.g., Wisdom, the Word) that reflect the being of God and not simply his nature or “attributes.”
  4. In the revelation of Jesus Christ, the identity of God is expanded to the world.
  5. We can know some things about God only by knowing Jesus Christ, and in no other way.
  6. The humiliating death of what Isaiah terms the Suffering Servant is God’s way of demonstrating his sovereignty to the world.
  7. The Cross is not the hiddenness of God but the revealing of God.  Jesus is exalted as God in his death.
  8. Jesus’ death (and not just his resurrection) is his exaltation.
  9. Patristic Christology was not necessary to champion the deity of Jesus Christ; the Jewish monotheism of the NT did that.
  10. The NT is not the “seed” of a high Christology from which the patristic fathers rounded out the full picture; patristic Christology operates from a different (though correct) angle.
  11. NT Christology is not concerned with the humanity versus the deity of Christ (both assumed) but with the humiliation versus the exaltation of Christ.
  12. It was the Greek categories of what God is rather than the Jewish (Biblical) categories of who God is that made the deity of Jesus Christ problematic.  The patristic fathers arrived at the right conclusions despite adopting categories inferior to the Biblical category of Jewish monotheism.
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