Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

Posts by P. Andrew Sandlin

Inhabiting the Strange New World Within the Bible

Posted on January 6, 2015


This is a strange article about a strange book creating a strange world. But its very strangeness is a life-and-death matter.


Let’s begin by noting a short exchange between Jesus and his disciples recorded by Luke:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:5-6)

This exchange is bristling with truth and meaning. It’s potentially life transformational. Our Lord had just exhorted the disciples to forgive their brother if he repents, even if he sins seven times a day. It’s possible that their request “Increase our faith!” is a direct response to that exhortation. The meaning then would be: “Lord, it’s exceedingly hard to forgive those that sin against us even once. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive up to seven times daily. For that kind of forgiveness, we must have more faith.” Or, there simply could be an unstated ellipsis in the narrative. In verse 5, Luke could be starting a new sub-narrative.[1]

The Strange New World

Still, the broad meaning is clear enough. The disciples implore the Lord to increase their faith. He responds by employing a metaphor about a grain of mustard seed. But he didn’t, strictly speaking, answer their question. Before we can grasp the significance of his answer, however, we need to re-orient our thinking to what Karl Barth once called “the strange new world within the Bible.”[2] I don’t mean by this the strange old world of the ancient Near East, something entirely different. Of course, in our postmodern West, we’re far removed culturally and historically from the context in which the words of Luke 17 were first uttered. This distance poses challenges for interpreting the Bible. Thoughtful interpretation must take account of that ancient context and not read the Bible as though it were written last year in Los Angeles or London. We’re far removed from the Palestine of 2000 years ago, and biblical interpretation must investigate what the passage might have meant when it was originally uttered. But, if you’ll think about it, that ancient context was in some fundamental ways just as removed from “the strange new world within the Bible” as we are. How is that? Let’s answer in terms of our passage by contrasting what we find hard to believe with what the ancients found hard to believe.

Two Species of Unbelief

Why is faith hard in our world? It generally reduces to things like metaphysics, theodicy, psychology, and neuroscience: “How can we believe that God exists given the suppositions of our scientifically oriented society?” Or: “We all know that the ancients believed in the supernatural, but we no longer need supernatural explanations for the mysteries of the universe.” Or: “How can we believe in God when there’s such evil and suffering in the world?” Or: “If God exists, why do bad things happen to good people?” Or: “Isn’t belief in God just a self-invented opiate to deaden the emotional pain of this life?” Or: “Isn’t theism just a belief — like all other beliefs — induced by chemical reactions in our brain?” These are serious modern questions that tend to foster unbelief, but they’re not the questions of the ancient world. Consequently, we need to ask, what was the problem of unbelief among the ancients that faith at that time needed to overcome? How could they not believe?

We get one clue in our narrative. Their problem was what we might term existential unbelief in contrast to what I’d like to term today’s speculative unbelief. It’s hard to imagine moderns (including Christians) concerned much about getting more faith to forgive those who have sinned against us (though we should). On the other hand, it’s impossible to imagine the ancients needing faith to believe in God on the grounds that they can’t see him — they believed in gods and the supernatural and the routine interface between what we would call the distinction between the supernatural and natural realms. That wasn’t an intellectual problem for them. Their problem was trusting a God that wasn’t whimsical and mercurial like all the pagan gods; a God that governed the entire universe, sending rain on their crops so that they and their children wouldn’t starve; a God that cared enough to provide a warm place to sleep on a cold night; a God that would heal leprosy and protect from bloodthirsty tribal armies. Their faith is often not our faith, and their unbelief is often not our unbelief. This is part of what I mean when I say that to grasp this passage (and similar ones), we must inhabit the strange new world within the Bible: the interpretive distance is (a) historical, (b) existential, and (c) spiritual. Let me explain.

If we observe biblical interpreters who neglect the historical and cultural distance between the biblical text and our time, we know that they’ll likely misinterpret the text. For example, we observe some Christians who read that Paul requires women to be “covered” in public worship (1 Cor. 11), and they immediately conclude that women today must wear veils in church (that’s not even self-evident from the passage). We’d first ask them to consider what “covering” meant in the ancient world; why Paul would have demanded it; whether that command is transcultural; and if so, what its practice would look like today. That is one of the tasks of faithful biblical interpretation, and it’s a common understanding among thoughtful biblical interpreters.

The Context of the Biblical World

But we might be less aware of the existential differences between our world and the world of the Bible, as well as the differences between the ancient world and the world of the Bible. The biblical world was removed from the ancient world, as I said before, just as it is from our world, because the biblical world presupposes the ubiquity and greatness and goodness of a sovereign God. This, after all, is how the Bible starts. “In the beginning, God….” It starts not with an argument or apologetic, but a self-verifying assertion. This gracious, omnipotent, ever-active God is the ontological and conceptual context for the entire universe. This context, the strange new world within the Bible, was just as distant from the ancient world as it is from us. It’s an alien world, not historically, but spiritually. And its alienation from sinful humanity spans all of post-Fall human history. For autonomous humans to put their full confidence in this God was just as hard 2000–4000 years ago as it is today. Most of the ancients didn’t have a problem believing in the supernatural, but they did have a problem surrendering their lives to the God of the Bible. Alternatively, we moderns are inclined to reason: “There’s no good evidence that God exists, but if he exists as the Bible says, we’d probably need to be fully committed to that kind of God — good thing he doesn’t exist!” This is simply to say that human autonomy is a transcultural, perennial problem.

One of the great temptations we contemporary Christians experience is to ask how the Bible — an ancient book, assuming an ancient worldview and experience — can be relevant in our postmodern world. This has things precisely backwards. We should be asking how we Christians inhabiting postmodernity can — must — inhabit the world of the Bible. We shouldn’t be laboring to make the Bible more relevant. We should be laboring to change our thinking and acting to bring them into greater conformity to the biblical world.[3]

Our Hyperactive God

This is precisely how Jesus led his disciples. When they asked him to increase their faith, he didn’t instruct them on how to do that. They wanted greater faith so as to act in a more virtuous way in forgiving those who sinned against them. Jesus is saying, “If you inhabit a new world, the biblical world, you’ll understand that greater faith isn’t a problem.” In short, he invited them to more deeply inhabit the world of the Bible — the world of the God who is so great that even a faith the size of a puny mustard seed can remove a deeply entrenched mulberry tree. The Lord chose that tree as an example because its tentacular roots seem almost impossible to extract from the ground. His answer wasn’t to tell them how to increase their faith; rather, it was to increase their knowledge of the greatness of God, [4] the God of the strange world within the Bible.

This invitation highlights several truths for us to consider.

Holism, not dualism

First, please note that Jesus was employing a metaphor, not so much an analogy. At least, he wasn’t saying, “Just as a mulberry tree could be powerfully uprooted in the physical universe, so God could powerfully accomplish exploits in the ‘spiritual’ (non-physical) universe.” No. In too many cases, Jesus had asked his Father to answer very physical, tactile prayers — healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and miraculously providing tax money.

Our current way of thinking is often very different from this. The evangelical church in many quarters is profoundly dualistic — it looks down on the human body, on physical healing, on the arts and technology and economics, on creating wealth, on caring for the poor, all these considered, at best, sub-spiritual and, at worst, distractions from the Faith. But to assert Jesus’ Lordship is to assert his Lordship in all of life, not simply the so-called “spiritual” part, “spiritual” interpreted (wrongly) as non-physical.

When Jesus invited the disciples to inhabit the world of the Bible, he was inviting them to exert faith in the God who is interested not just in peace and joy in one’s heart, but also in food on our table, a roof over our heads, money to help not just our family but also Christian ministries and the needy, and a God who is interested in all else of the physical, tactile earth. The world of the Bible is presided over by the God who governs everything, and therefore is interested in everything.

Piety: vertical and horizontal

Second, this means that the biblical world cannot be limited to merely vertical piety. This, too, is a vexing evangelical problem. These words by Scott J. Hafemann must sound strange to many modern evangelicals:

The primary matrix of God’s self-revelation is … not private religious experience, but the events recounted and interpreted in the Scriptures that establish and maintain [covenant] relationships…. History, not the heart, is the locus of divine revelation.[5]

Strange indeed — a strange biblical world. We live in a post-Kantian world increasingly obsessed with “the inward turn,” with the private conceptual world that we all inhabit: how we are feeling, what our moods are, what arguments convince us, what our choices will be, what we define as true and beautiful. But God didn’t call his people to him, and Jesus did not shed his blood and rise from the dead for us, simply to create an interior relationship with the Triune God. Already in Genesis 1 God made clear to Adam and Eve that he created them not merely to commune with him (vital though that communion was, Gen. 3:8) but also to exercise loving stewardship over the rest of his creation as his deputies (Gen. 1:28–30). This is to say that God isn’t interested only in a warm, personal relationship with you and me; he’s also interested in bringing all things under his loving but kingly authority manifested in his Son. When we interiorize Christianity under the guise of passionate devotion, we are in reality, if unintentionally, undercutting the Lordship of Jesus Christ and stepping out of the biblical world. That world, the world that Jesus invited his disciples to inhabit, is a world in which all people, all creation, brings honor and glory to him.

It sometimes seems that many evangelicals are interested in only vertical piety, while Social Gospel liberals are interested only in horizontal piety. The fact is that both are wrong. Our piety must be holistic. It must encompass all of life.

A commanding faith

Third, God makes himself vulnerable to the commanding authority of belief in himself. Notice that Jesus told his disciples that they could speak a commanding word to the mulberry tree, and it would obey. We might get skittish when we hear this language, because it reminds us of some of our more radical Pentecostal brothers and sisters, or even the prosperity or health-and-wealth gospel crowd, whose religion looks suspiciously like North American self-help narcissism. In many cases, that is precisely what it is. But, of course, this is not what Jesus is denoting at all. You’ll notice that Jesus is not recommending that his disciples command magical money or oceanfront houses or late-model Lamborghinis. He’s telling them that they can employ faith in a big God to command God to work for his glory.

God is no talisman, but he invites (no, requires) his people to exercise commanding faith. In other words, God has placed within the hands of his people the privilege and responsibility of directing his power in the earth. Let’s not be diluted by a sense of spurious humility. Let’s not ask, “Who am I to make great claims in the Lord’s name”? When we think this way, what we are really asking is for God not to demonstrate his greatness in the earth. This fact leads to my final application:

No absentee landlord

God longs to display his great love for his people by responding in spectacular ways to their requests. When he answers such massive requests, he exhibits both his power in the universe, as well as his love for his people.

Matthew Henry makes a fascinating point when commenting on the Lord’s Prayer: “[W]hereas the Jews’ prayers were generally adorations, and praises of God, and doxologies, John taught his disciples such prayers as were more filled up with petitions and requests.”[6] The Jews of that era were inclined to pray by holding their palms upward, looking to the heavens, and telling God how great he is. I imagine that no believer who wishes to please God would oppose such prayer. God is worthy of all of the praise we can give him.

Henry implied, though, that this isn’t how Jesus instructed his disciples to pray. He told them that, after giving God his due worship, they should actually ask him to do things in the earth. To tell God how great he is without asking him to demonstrate his greatness in the earth is to pray half of prayer. When we ask God as our gracious Father not just to provide for our very physical needs but also to unleash his kingdom’s will in earth as it is in heaven, we’re offering a spectacular request. Think about it for a moment. The will of God is done impeccably in heaven. And Jesus instructs his disciples, and us, to ask that that same impeccable will be accomplished in our sinful world.

But prayer isn’t limited to prayer for kingdom advancement. Again and again Jesus tells his disciples that what they ask in his name, he will do it (Mt. 7:7; Lk. 18:1ff.; Jn. 14:14). Now, he either meant what he said, or he didn’t. Nobody believes that God promises to answer every single request, because God as a loving Father will not do for us what would be harmful to us. It’s remarkable, however, that by actual count, we’re informed that God answered about 70% of the prayers his people prayed as recorded in the Bible, and there could have been many more answers we’re not told about to the recorded prayers.[7] In the words of Grant R. Osborne, “God is sovereign and can say ‘no,’ but we should not expect God to reject our requests.”[8]

If this is the case, it is strange indeed why Christians don’t pray more frequently. Why don’t we ask God to get us a better job, to provide the money to pay our legitimate bills, to heal broken relationships with friends and family, to heal our bodily ailments, to get us better sleep, and find the right spouse. And why do we pray such anorexic prayers when Jesus said that to inhabit the biblical world is to exercise faith in the God who specializes in doing such spectacular things that he alone will get the glory? Why not prayer that God will reroute a hurricane or avalanche, that he will heal our sister of pancreatic cancer, that he will supply 3 million dollars to launch a distinctly Christian movie studio?  Answers to paltry prayers might lead spectators to think that our God is a paltry God. Answers to spectacular prayers tend to lead spectators to recognize that our God is a spectacular God (at least the idolatrous apostate Jews thought so).

God is, if I may use the expression, truly hyperactive in our world. He is incessantly moving, changing situations and people, forgiving sin, healing cancer, judging the wicked, throwing down the mighty, exalting the lowly, sending storms as well as sunny weather, protecting children, inspiring joy, eroding mountains and creating new ones, guiding the sea’s tides, preserving what we call “universal laws,” and much else. God is not an absentee landlord. He is hyperactive in our world, his world,


This is the biblical world, the real world. Inhabiting the biblical world is inhabiting a world where God is constantly glorified, constantly active, constantly undertaking on behalf of his people. Let us not be guilty of trying to import God into our own world but, rather, let us inhabit the strange new world within the Bible.


[1] The Bible doesn’t include non-verbal clues that would help us to understand meaning: intonation, gestures, silences, and body language. God intentionally hasn’t left us with any of these in the Bible, of course, and this means that we must leave room for flexibility in interpretation, particularly in narrative, where non-verbal communication is most likely. See Anthony C. Thiselton, “Semantics and New Testament Interpretation,” New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, I. Howard Marshall, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 75–104.

[2] Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 28.

[3] This is precisely how Christians in the precritical era interpreted the Bible: “[S]ince the world truly rendered by combining biblical narratives into one [grand narrative] the one and only real world, it [the biblical world] must in principle embrace the experience of any present age and reader. Not only was it possible for him [the precritical Christian], it was also his duty to fit himself into that world in which he was in any case a member, and he too did so in part by figural [figurative] interpretation and in part of course by his mode of life. He was to see his disposition, his actions and passions, the shape of his own life as well as that of his era’s events as figures of that storied [biblical] world,” Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974), 3.

[4] Leon Morris, Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 256, emphasis supplied.

[5] Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship,” Central Themes in Biblical Theology, Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 21.

[6] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, accessed January 1, 2015.

[7] Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 5.

[8] Grant R. Osborne, “Moving Forward on our Knees: Corporate Prayer in the New Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 53/2 (June 2010), 257.

Munus Triplex: The Cure

Posted on December 20, 2014


A message delivered to the Fellowship of Mere Christianity, July 23, 2014 at City Church, Corpus Christi, Texas

(Heb. 1:1–3)


In his classic Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis compares the communion among Christians to a commodious house with a great hall. Adjoining the great hall were a series of rooms. Lewis says that “mere Christianity” is the great hall where all Christians congregate and mingle to discuss their abundant commonalities. Then they drift into separate rooms, their own churches and denominations, where they discuss their particular distinctives. In many ways, the FMC is the great hall.

The name Fellowship of Mere Christianity was the brainchild of Dr. Dave Lescalleet. He and I were discussing years ago the need for a fellowship to be grounded in mere Christianity, the great central truths of the Gospel. By God’s grace, we assembled a group at the Dallas airport, and we launched the FMC. Our theological basis is the five Reformation solas (or solae). From the beginning, we stressed deference and accountability.

Our church and I have been privileged to be a part of this group. Many of you here I first met through the fellowship. I am profoundly grateful for it. I believe its best days are ahead. I believe there’s a hunger for this kind of fellowship.

Dave has chosen as the theme the Munus Triplex: the threefold work of Jesus Christ: prophet, priest, and king. I’m not sure he could’ve selected a more appropriate theme. This is a traditional way of speaking about our Lord’s work that goes back at least as far as Eusebius. It also was a favorite of John Calvin. There is no place in the Bible where the Munus Triplex is found in such compressed form than here at the beginning of Hebrews. Tonight I want to preach about it, but I want to do it in perhaps a unique way.

First, I will delineate the particular office of our Lord. Then I will tell what it was calculated to accomplish. Finally, I will relate why this office is especially relevant in our present culture.

Let me begin by noting that our forebears saw the Munus Triplex as the cure to mankind’s greatest ailment: sin. The entire work of Jesus Christ was necessitated by the Fall. To put it bluntly: The Fall is the problem, and Jesus Christ is the solution. Sin is the disease, and our Lord is the cure.


This is an apt segue to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We read in our passage that he made “purification for sins” (v. 3). What is the role of a priest? A priest is a mediator. He represents God to men and men to God. In the creation account we read that God would come down to commune with Adam and Eve in the form of wind (the Spirit, Gen. 3:8). God would come, as it were, face to face with man and woman. But when they sinned, they instinctively knew that they couldn’t encounter God in fully exposed openness. That’s the main reason that they made skins to cover themselves. It wasn’t from some sexual embarrassment. It was knowing instinctively that sin separated them from God.

The old covenant

This is why it was necessary after the Fall to offer sacrifices to God. God established sacrifice as a way to clear the road back to him. The sin problem had to be taken care of, and the way that he took care of it was by death — a sacrificial death (Lev. 17:11; Ezek. 18:20). And this is why God established priests in Israel. Their job was to offer the blood of the animal on the altar before God to appease his righteous judgment. When man’s sin was atoned for, that is, when it was paid for, man could come back into communion with God.[1]

The new covenant

The book of Hebrews teaches that all of the animals sacrificed in the Old Testament were simply temporary means of atonement. They all pointed to the one, final, enduring sacrifice: Jesus Christ himself. The Old Testament priests offered sacrifices for Israel and for their own sins. But Jesus, who was not a sinner, offered his own body as a sacrifice on the Cross (Heb. 7:20–27). He was the priest who was his own sacrifice. This means that Jesus Christ is the only way to get back into communion with God. Jesus in his death is the cure to man’s estrangement from God.

Whatever happened to sin?

Now today, we often don’t think in these terms. Even when we consider sin (and most people no longer even believe in sin), we think of sin’s pollution or corruption — all of the bad things it does to us. Of course, sin does pollute and corrupt. It poisons our mind and will and emotions and friendships and family and vocation and culture and all of life. We think of obvious examples: Drunkenness and drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases and body mutilation and envy and covetousness. But if we think only of the pollution of sin, we become very man-centered. Sin is bad because it hurts me.

The greatest problem is that our sin separates us from God. God created us for communion with him in the Trinity (Jn. 17:20–26). The Father and Son and Spirit relished their communion so much that they wanted to share it — they wanted more and more people to commune with them. Sin breaks that communion; it breaks God’s heart (Gen. 6: 5–6). Sin is so bad because it hurts and offends God, our Creator.

But it also brings us under God’s righteous judgment. In Romans 1 we learn that God’s anger is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness. God created man to love and commune with him, but man turned his back on God, and man today turns his back on God. Therefore, when we sin, we are acting in ways for which we were never created. We are destroying God’s beautiful design. This is why he threatens judgment to all those who refuse to turn to Jesus Christ. God judges sin because sin wrecks God’s lovely design for man.

But Jesus is the cure. He suffered on the cross for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3:18). When we trust in him, his righteousness becomes ours (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the only way to avoid God’s judgment. Jesus is the cure for his Father’s judgment on sinful humanity. He is the cure for his own broken heart and his own holy anger at what man has done to his creation.

It’s vitally important to declare this truth today because so few people in our culture even believe in sin. Or if they do, they redefine sin:

Secular people [so we read in USA Today] still believe there’s sin, judgment and punishment, says sociologist Barry Kosmin, a research professor in public policy and law and director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

It’s just a different list of sinners than religious traditions teach.

“What is unacceptable has changed,” Kosmin observes. “Racism and sexual harassment, which were not sins in the past, are now. Adultery and addiction are just bad or sad behavior. And commercial sex is a no, but breaking the bonds of marriage is not.

“Secularism is situational without fundamental, universal rules. Explanations are kosher. Mitigating circumstances, too. But if people are held guilty, the punishment, of course, has to be in this world, not the next. Secular people don’t burn in hell, they burn in the court of public opinion.”

Many people simply don’t believe in sin as such. They believe that we fail, and many of them believe that our problems and ethics are biologically determined. They are naturalistic determinists. The chemicals and electrical impulses in our body make us act as we do, and if this is the truth, then we need drugs or other naturalistic impulses to help us to act the way that we should. In the end, this means that man is not really responsible for his actions.

Amid this mellow moral apathy we must proclaim a foundational truth of the Gospel: man is a sinner; he has broken God’s law; he therefore stands under God’s judgment. It’s only when people come under a deep conviction of their sin and God’s judgment that they will understand that Jesus is the cure. But if they don’t recognize that they are sick, they won’t look for a cure.

The law prepares for the gospel

This is why many in the Reformation tradition taught that we should preach the Law and then the Gospel.[2] People aren’t ready for the good news of salvation until they are painfully aware of the bad news of God’s judgment on their sin. But once sinners have understood God’s judgment, they then can understand how Jesus Christ came as our priest to suffer God’s judgment on himself. He is the great high priest, the greatest priest of all (Heb. 4:14), because he’s the one who alone can bring us back into fellowship with God. Then, God is no longer our enemy (Rom. 5:10; Jas. 4:4). His judgment no longer hangs over us. We are now his children whom he will never abandon. Jesus as the priest makes this happen.


Jesus Christ is also the prophet. “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (vv. 1­–2). God didn’t create man with total, built-in direction. Man needs direction from the outside. This means that even before the Fall, God had to reveal to man how to live, what to do and what not to do (Gen. 1:28–30; 2:15–17). After the Fall, you can only imagine how necessary this external revelation is. Imagine how much external direction man needs now that his mind is clouded by sin and rebellion and corruption!

The epistle to the Hebrews tells us that God spoke during the Old Testament times in various ways and by prophetic utterance. God raised up men (and sometimes women) to speak for him. They were God’s mouthpieces.[3] The prophets spoke the very living word of the living God. The Hebrews were often surrounded by confusion and chaos and competing words. Into this cacophony of voices, God would usually send a prophet. The voice of God by the mouth of the prophet spoke the truth in the middle of this deluge of lies.

But just as in the case of the old covenant priests, so the Old Testament prophets pointed to one final Prophet. Moses, in fact, predicted Jesus, the Prophet (Dt. 18:15–18; 34:10; Ac. 3:22; 7:37). Jesus wasn’t only the final, definitive, priestly sacrifice. He was the final, definitive, revelatory prophet. Jesus is God’s final, objective word to man.

The prophetic word

Where do we find his word? In the Bible, of course. Jesus spoke many, many words that aren’t found in the Bible, but the words of Jesus that God intended to be preserved to the end of time are in the Holy Scriptures. And since Jesus confirmed both the Old Testament (Mt. 5:17–19; Lk. 24:44) as well as his accredited representatives, the apostles (Jn. 16:13; 1 Tim. 6:1–3; Jude 17), we can take this canonical revelation as the final word of Jesus Christ.

Many words

And it’s a good thing, too. Our age of postmodernity and globalism and multiculturalism is an age of cacophonic voices — many truths. In Western culture, politicians try to commandeer the authoritative word. They enjoy the power of coercion (in biblical terms, the sword [Rom. 13:]), so at times their word can be sobering indeed. They decree that you must hand over your legitimately gotten wealth, or that men may marry men and women may marry women, or that unborn babies can be butchered in the womb. The state speaks a powerful word. Unfortunately, too often it’s an antinomian and apostate word.

Then there is the authoritative word from the major secular universities. That’s often an authoritative decree issued in the form of speech codes. You can be charged as a racist or sexist or homophobe if you transgress the precise language crafted by these treasonous intellectuals. They see their word as final and authoritative.

Libertarians counter with the authoritative word of the naked individual. “I reinvent my own life, I create my own reality, and I speak the only authoritative word for my life.” These libertarians are often the mirror image of the statists. Libertarians want free markets and free sex.

As our world becomes more globally networked, barriers to these competing words evaporate. Americans become enamored of Asian religion, and Asians becoming enamored of American technology. The Chinese use iPhones and Americans convert to Buddhism. There is no right and wrong way, only many different and equally permissible ways.

Man, let us recall, must be saved not just from a rebellious will and emotions but also a rebellious intellect. This is the intellectual challenge of the Gospel. The gospel tells us that we hold bad ideas, not just that we engage in bad actions. In fact, generally we engage in bad actions because we hold bad ideas. The gospel compels us to get rid of our bad ideas and submit to God’s truth in his word. The sinful world is filled with bad ideas, bad words, that lead to bad morality.

Into this moral morass the word of Jesus Christ thunders: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The word of the prophet Jesus is the authoritative divine word, and all words that conflict with it are wrong.


Jehovah God was the King of Israel, but the Jews cried out for a king like the surrounding nations, and God gave them one. That king, Saul, with a bitter failure. But God named his replacement, and that king, David, was (mostly) a godly man. God promised to David that he would keep a king from David’s lineage on his throne in perpetuity as long as those kings obeyed (2 Sam. 7). Most importantly, he promised a one great and final King. We learned from the New Testament that this King was none other than Jesus Christ (Ac. 2:22–41).

We learn also from the New Testament that Jesus was to be King not only of the Jews, but over the entire world. In other words, Jesus Christ is God’s mediatorial ruler of the universe (Eph. 1:20–23).

Man needs a king because man was never meant to be autonomous. Moment by moment we were meant to depend on God (Prov. 3:5–6). But sin complicated this dependence. When the serpent deceived Eve, he pressed her to be her own authority. She would decide for herself what was right and wrong. This was mankind’s first attempt at autonomy, and it plunged the entire world into sin.

Jesus must be King because man isn’t capable of ruling himself. Man is called to rule the rest of creation under God’s authority (Gen. 1:26–28), but man was never meant to be autonomous. And once man sinned, his rebellion constituted a lust for autonomy. Man now sets his own autonomy against God’s authority.

Increasingly, Western culture has drifted away from authority of any kind. Of course, there was evil and corrupt authority in the past, and the Enlightenment world rebelled against it: bad kings and priests and even fathers. But the godly alternative to bad authority is good authority, not no authority. And all legitimate authority derives from God (Rom. 13:1). In our world, Jesus is that authority.

The heavy burden of autonomy

Modern man lusts for autonomy, but this autonomy comes with a heavy price tag. Since autonomy wrecks the divine design, it gradually destroys man.

When man chases autonomy, he wants his own way at all costs. This means trampling other people. There is large-scale, autonomous trampling and small-scale autonomous trampling. Autonomous tyrants care nothing for their citizens but treat them as nothing more than instruments of their own power and greed. This autonomy afflicted every tyrant from the ancient pharaohs to Stalin and Kim Jong-Il. But it’s the same autonomy that afflicts small-scale tyrants — people like us. Perhaps we use people for our own ends. We don’t understand that people are an end in themselves. The young man uses a young woman for his own sexual pleasure. An employer uses an employee to enrich himself without caring about that employee’s family. Church leaders use church members to burnish their credentials. This is small-scale tyranny, and it’s a form of sinful autonomy.

To all of these tyrants, the small-scale tyrants in the family to the more prominent tyrants in the corporate boardroom to the global tyrants and political palaces, Jesus Christ says: “I am King, and there is no other, and you must bow to me.”

Our kingly friend

But, praise God, the good kings of the ancient world not only exercised authority; they felt deeply their responsibility for their subjects. This profound care characterizes King Jesus. He doesn’t rule his people with rigor and harshness but with love and grace. He calls us his friends (Jn. 15:15).

Now a kingly friend is an important friend because he has at his disposal remarkable resources to fulfill his friendship. This friend can do things for us that another friend cannot. This King is sufficiently strong to protect us against all enemies, provide for us in our deepest need, and preserve us all the way to our heavenly home. This isn’t an ordinary friend. He’s a kingly friend, and he employs his kingship to benefit his citizens. To be a citizen of his kingdom is to be a beneficiary of his royal largess.

Ironically, then, when modern men and women turn away from the kingship of Jesus Christ in order to exert their own autonomy, they’re actually turning away from the only one who can provide what they really need. They would rather rule in hell than submit in heaven. They would rather blow up their own life and the lives of everyone around them than bow the knee to Jesus Christ.

But the office of Jesus’ Kingship to his people is a marvelous display of his grace. To the unrepentant and rebellious, this kingship is a great warning: Repent or perish. We either submit to the King willingly, and become his friends, are we submit to the King unwillingly, and we suffer his judgment.

Conclusion: The Munus Triplex Today

Never before in Western culture has the Munus Triplex been more desperately needed. The medieval world essentially understood the kingship of our Lord, and his prophetic office, but were confused about his priestly office. But as a result of the Enlightenment, and romanticism, and more recently postmodernity, each of the three principal offices of Jesus Christ has slowly drifted into the mists of time, even as Jesus himself seems to be drifting into the mists of time.

Only he isn’t, and they aren’t. Humanity is on a collision course with cultural destruction and individual judgment, but the good news is that Jesus Christ — Prophet, Priest, and King — is the cure.

I urge you never to be timid or ashamed in declaring the threefold office of Jesus Christ. If he is the only cure, to refuse to be bold in declaring him is actually to be delinquent in our responsibility to humanity.

And then we learn, much to our chagrin, that the “nice,” inoffensive, non-judgmental Christians are, in fact, the most irresponsible and blameworthy of all.

If Jesus Christ is the cure, we must not withhold the cure to the sick people who need him most.


[1] This is why every departure from substitutionary atonement (see this expose) is a departure from God’s righteousness.

[2] While I disagree with the Lutheran law-gospel distinction, I agree that man must be convicted of his sin before he can trust Jesus Christ as the only cure to his sin. See my Wrongly Dividing the Word.

[3] But without obliterating their own unique personalities.

Buffet Multiculturalists

Posted on December 9, 2014


John Gray, post-postmodernist, perpetuates the merely postmodern idea that reality and ethics must be local and “perspectival”: right and wrong are just a matter of personal preference, like “Boxers or briefs?” and “Chicken salad or tuna salad?” Universal, transcultural ethics are a humanly constructed illusion often designed to vest merely local, perspectival ethics with universal authority that we Enlightenment Westerners impose on everybody else:

The universalizing project of Western cultures, which in our historical context has become a nihilist expression of the will to power, must be surrendered, and replaced by a willingness to share the earth with radically different cultures. Such acceptance of diversity among human communities must not be a means of promoting ultimate convergence into sameness, but rather an expression of the openness to cultural difference. The acceptance of cultural diversity which is most needed is not the pluralism of plans and styles of life affirmed in Western liberal cultures, but a recognition of the reality of cultural diversity among whole ways of life.[1]

We arrogant Westerners, in short, need to be more ethically modest: learn to live with people on the other side of the world (or street) who maintain different ethical standards than we do. This is the lovely cornucopia of multiculturalism, in which we revel in ethical diversity and the peacefully mutual respect of multicultural non-judgmentalism.

And a recipe for the most grievous tyranny. Gray somehow doesn’t tell us how we should live and let live with (for example) an ISIS culture that decapitates children, a Nazi culture that gasses Jews and homosexuals, or even an antebellum American culture that lynches blacks, all examples of “cultural diversity among whole ways of life” if there ever were any. The late Allan Bloom employed this intellectual tactic on his uncritical relativist students, relativism being the moral postulate of multiculturalism:

The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, “If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,” they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness [moral relativism].[2]

Bloom’s simple exercise would undermine Gray’s sticky-sweet relativism. It’s an inconvenient thought experiment. Therefore, relativists usually skip it. They are conceptual or theoretical relativists. They are relativists when chafing under the restraints of God’s universal moral law. Until somebody steals their late-model BMW. Then they rise up with a universalized moral indignation, an ethical grammar with which they expect every reasonable person to sympathize. They are buffet multiculturalists. They want to defy God’s universal moral law on the cheap.

I urge them to have the courage of their convictions: celebrate Islamofascists raping miniskirt-wearing women, slave owners bullwhipping recalcitrant blacks, and Dr. Josef Mengele dismembering Jewish children.

Then, finally, we’ll get a little moral consistency, and hustle the argument along.


[1] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 269, emphasis added.

[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon $ Schuster, 1987), 26.

Swapping Good Universals for Bad

Posted on December 1, 2014


John Gray, self-appointed academic assassin of the Enlightenment, observes that the United States, unlike other Western democracies, has little history of regional and local cultures that stand out as authoritative communities in the face of the universalizing culture of the Enlightenment.[1] Like many other postmodernists, Gray deplores how the Enlightenment de-privileges the local and particular. The Enlightenment championed universal knowledge, universal truth, universal reason, universal experience, and universal virtues as an increasingly secular continuation of the same universals fostered in the Christian culture of medieval and Reformation Europe. Gray joins other historians of ideas in judging the Enlightenment a basically secularized Christendom. Among the postmodernists, he heralds — and relishes — the breakdown of the Enlightenment in favor of localisms and particularisms, of older, simpler, regional cultures “uncorrupted” by the rapacious technological science and universal values of the West, sounding a lot like Heidegger in his nativism. Gray agrees with Nietzsche that once you get rid of the synthesis of Christianity and Greco-Roman culture that is the heritage of the West, you must recreate culture from the ground up — new “truth,” new ethics, new aesthetics. Or else: re-privilege the cultural particularisms that the Enlightenment universals vanquished (without pretending that the Enlightenment never happened).

The problem is that the United States was birthed in the Christian/classical synthesis, and simply has no bevy of robust local and regional cultures to which to return and, therefore, faces “an outbreak of nihilism of a violence and intensity unknown in other Western countries.”[2] For the United States, the breakdown of the Enlightenment universal means replacing it with the horror of Nietzsche’s universal nihilism, since no “particularistic” substitutes for it are readily available in the Unites States’ heritage. It’s universals or bust. Apparently, it’s either universal nihilism or universal Christianity.

You get to pick only one.


[1] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 216–218.

[2] 217.

Thanksgiving Isn’t Christmas’ Entrance Ramp

Posted on November 26, 2014


If you assume that Thanksgiving has been canceled this year, you might be forgiven. Wall-to-wall commercials for Black Friday began even earlier this year — some of them I heard as early as October. Let’s be clear: as a proponent of God’s moral law and, therefore, of free markets, I have no objection whatsoever to honest advertisement. I do object, however — and vehemently — to the mad rush to get to Christmas by marginalizing Thanksgiving. In past years, the calendrical proximity of Thanksgiving to Christmas was irrelevant, since Christmas advertisement began in earnest only in mid-December. In the early 80’s, as my wife Sharon and I were launching our family, we could count on the sequestered integrity of a Thanksgiving celebration on which Christmas — or even the longer Advent season — did not impinge. We celebrated Thanksgiving, and then, about a month later, we celebrated Christmas. Today, neither we nor anybody else in the United States enjoys such a calm, unimpeded luxury.

A National Christian Holiday

While Thanksgiving may not generate inky-black department-store sales, and while it is not a part of the traditional church calendar, it is a deeply Christian holiday (= holy day). President George Washington, a Christian of the formal, establishment type, proclaimed November 26 as a day of national Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln, who was not by most accounts a professing Christian but who, like the ancient Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (Ezra 6–7), knew and reverenced the true God of heaven and earth. Lincoln issued his proclamation during the dark years of our nation’s Civil War, and his tone of humility amid offering thanksgiving to God is striking even today. After recounting God’s abundant national blessings even during the ravages of war, Lincoln states:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Lincoln, though personally not a Christian, was deeply imbued by the Christian culture in which he was reared, and consequently weaved together the specific, irrevocable Christian themes of God’s goodness, sovereignty and mercy; the validity of his moral law; human sinfulness; the reality of God’s forgiveness for those who repent; and the imperative of thanksgiving to our God. Lincoln knew that God both blesses and judges nations to the extent that they trust him and obey him. Though his language was non-sectarian and did not specifically invoke Christianity, it is compatible only with Christian revelation and certainly not with the Deism prominent among the European and Eastern elites of the previous generations.

Our National Apostasy

This cluster of deep Christian themes has been almost entirely absent from presidential administrations of both political parties over the last few decades. Would to God that Pres. Barack Obama, or, before him, Pres. George W. Bush, had indicted our nation for its depravity and urged us to repentance and humility and gratitude before a God who has not given us the national judgment we deserve.

But to be blunt, these unmistakably Christian themes don’t sell to a self-congratulatory, narcissistic population for which the ideas of sin and judgment are not so much repugnant as foreign. For this reason, Thanksgiving has become a vague secular sideshow to the vague, secular mainshow known as Christmas. The Thanksgiving holiday as originally conceived by Lincoln stands in sharp antithesis to the vague holiday secularisms (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one) to which Americans, including many professed Christians, have become accustomed.

Thanksgiving and Renewed Christian Culture

Reviving Thanksgiving as a distinctly Christian national holiday might be a vital part of restoring Christian culture. Days of national repentance and thanksgiving were a reality during the early years of our Republic, and it is hard to imagine the present success of our nation apart from these acts of national obedience. The fact that we have turned our back on them, and on the Triune God that they presuppose, invites God’s national judgment (Ps. 9:16–17; Jer. 51:20; 1 Pet. 4:17–18).

This Thanksgiving, do not allow Black Friday and the ubiquitous Christmas commercialization to dilute and divest Thanksgiving. Join me in reinvigorating the true meaning of Thanksgiving, not merely the true meaning of Christmas. The aphorism “Jesus is the reason for the season” is no less true of Thanksgiving than for Christmas.

Thanksgiving isn’t the entrance ramp to Christmas.


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