Friday, October 14, 2016

"A Different Interpretation": Do You Know What Interpretation Is?

ME: This Bible passage says ______________. That means we should(n't) _______________.

HIM/HER: That's one interpretation. I have a different interpretation.

ME: What's your interpretation?

HIM/HER: [Something completely contrary to what the passage says; OR . . . ] I don't know; I just know that I have a different interpretation.

ME: ???

There's a good bit of innocent confusion out there over what "interpretation" is. Some of the confusion is not so innocent: many people with a Christian self-concept wave it as a magic wand over a part of the Bible they don't like so that its meaning might disappear.

Here are four principles about interpreting the Bible that might clear up confusion and prevent you from being embarrassed when you use the term "interpretation."

1. The Bible is language, not art.

The principal function of language is communication—sending a meaningful message from a sender to a recipient. Art—whether employing language, visual forms, sound, or some combination—also functioned as a form of communication often in early times and even into modernity. (For example, an artist makes a statue of a king in a city. A viewer says, "This city is ruled by that king.")

But in the nineteenth century and later, art became more and more detached from communication—that is, the message became independent of both the sender and the recipient. Instead, in the eyes of many artists and audiences, "art for art's sake" took on an existence of its own. The artist did not intend to send a message, and the viewer did not try to parse out what the artist was "saying." Rather, both the maker and the viewer reacted to the artwork as if it were a found object with no context. That included artworks whose material was language—plays, novels, and the like.

Thus, "what it means to me" became one and the same with "what it means." By this principle, there are as many valid interpretations as there are interpreters, and no one—including the artist—can claim that theirs is closer to the "right" one than anyone else's. Though that interpretive principle is extremely radical, it persists widely in a softer, popular form that shows some interest in what the artist was trying to express but still makes the viewer's response to it the determinative interpretation.

I am out of my depth evaluating whether that is a good principle of interpreting art. But I can claim confidently that the Bible is not art in that sense.

For one thing, the Bible was written centuries before the concept of art for art's sake—in fact, it was probably written before the concept of art itself. The Bible was not written to be art. It is not art whose substance is language. The Bible is language whose construction is artful.

This makes all the difference in the world. If the Bible is language, then its function is to communicate. In any given book of the Bible, there is a sender (or senders) and a recipient (or recipients), and the text is the message (or messages) that goes from the one to the other.

Biblical interpretation, then, is for C to identify what A said to B. Interpretation—sound interpretation—is not about what C thinks or feels or anything about C's life. Interpretation is about taking ourselves as far off center stage as we can—hard for postmodern humans, but try it for a change—and looking at the message as a dynamic, relational bridge from one person to another, neither of whom is you. Therefore . . .

2. The Bible was written for us, not to us.

Interpretation requires knowing as much as you can about the author, the audience, the relationship between the two, and where and when they lived. Much of that can be gleaned from the message (the text) itself, while the rest can be gleaned from other texts, archaeology, and so on.

Once again, it is critical that before you read the Bible as a message to you, you read it as a message to someone else, because in fact it was not written to you but to them. It's not about you!

However, even though the Bible was not written to us living in the twenty-first century, it was written for us—and that "for" is a big deal.

First, the Bible contains the gospel, the "good news," which is the thread of God's activity through time to save for himself a people "from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9). The Bible reveals the gospel and gives critical examples of how this gospel was communicated to various specific hearers, but its purpose is to show all individuals at all times that this gospel is for them: we too can opt in to the people of God by committing ourselves to the gospel as truth.

The classic statement of this is the part in the Gospel of John, an account of the life of Jesus, that reads, "Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded that you [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).

Second, if you have become part of God's people by faith in the gospel, then the Bible, which tells the story of that people, is now your family heritage. It tells you who your spiritual ancestors are. It tells you the identity, standards, values, code of conduct, and mission of the family you now belong to—what it means to be a genuine part of that family.

Third, the Bible has an author behind its authors, namely the Holy Spirit. In a uniquely comprehensive and fully saturated way, the Bible is the word of God. If you have committed yourself to the gospel, then the Spirit of God who guided the authors of the Bible letter by letter—sometimes openly, sometimes silently—is the same Spirit in you.

The Holy Spirit, therefore, is the living, personal bridge between the Bible and yourself. Sometimes he turns the message that was written to someone else into a message directly to you. When he does it, you know it. But he never does so in a way that contradicts what he said in the Scriptures to the original recipients.

So if we know that the Bible wasn't written to us, but it is written for us, how do we read what it said to other people so that it has any bearing on our lives?

3. The Bible is to be interpreted first, applied second.

These are two distinct steps. It is critical that we take both, and it is critical that we do interpretation before we do application.

When the average person says, "I have a different interpretation," they usually mean, "The change required in my life or viewpoint implied by this Scripture is not reasonable or palatable to me." They merge interpretation and application into one step and thereby screw up both.

Once again, interpretation means identifying what the author(s) were communicating to the recipient(s). Neither of them is yourself, so leave yourself out of it.

For example, let's interpret Jesus' teaching, "It was said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt. 5:31-32).

A full-bore, robust interpretation requires us to read the source of what Jesus quoted ("Whoever divorces his wife . . . "). We need to get whatever information we can about how the quoted source served as a basis for action by Palestinian Jews in Jesus' time. We need to investigate the significance of Jesus saying, "It was said . . . but I say to you." We need to uncover what Jesus' society understood to count as "immorality." We need to explore why Jesus speaks about a husband divorcing his wife or marrying a divorced woman and not vice versa. We need to compare what Jesus says here to other remarks Jesus makes about divorce to get a fuller picture of his thoughts. Finally, we need to explore the whole book to discern as well as we can why the writer, who had lots of material to choose from, thought this was worth including in his account of Jesus' life.

At the end of all this investigation, we can sum it up starting like this: "Matthew recorded that Jesus instructed a large group of first-century Palestinian Jews, including a smaller group of his disciples not to _______________ because _______________." That is an interpretation.

The average person does not have the resources or training to produce an interpretation this thorough, but that doesn't mean you can't do legitimate interpretation yourself. As long as you take care to set yourself aside, observe the text, take into account as much of its context as you know, and phrase your findings in terms of what the original author(s) were attempting to communicate to the original recipient(s), you are doing genuine interpretation. Every reader—even you!—can do this and must do this.

Application is comparing our life and viewpoint with the interpreted text to discern what in ourselves must change for us to fit in with the people of God. The details of this are infinitely complex, but the basics are very simple:
  • If the interpreted text asserts a truth, believe it.
  • If the interpreted text gives an instruction, obey it.
  • If the interpreted text models a good example, imitate it.
That's application. You'll note that it all rests on a sound interpretation of the text—you need to know exactly what truth is being asserted (and what is not) or what instruction is being given (and what is not) or what good example is being modeled (and what is not).

Also, there is one critical exception to the rule: do not believe or obey or imitate it—at least not in a straightforward way—if there has been a radical change in conditions between the time of the text and yourself. I will define "radical change" in the next post. (Expect to be surprised.) But I will talk about one particular change now.

4. Interpretation doesn't correct the Bible; it corrects you.

There is no denying that certain beliefs and practices of Christians have changed over time despite that Christians have based their thinking and behavior on the same Bible and used the Bible to justify them.

Examples that jump quickest to mind compare Christians in the nineteenth century with those in the twenty-first. A popular one is slavery (which I'll talk more about in the post after next). Another example we could bring up is Sabbath-keeping; American Christians today do a vast array of activities on Sundays, almost all of which were considered sinful by Christians in an earlier time when done on the Lord's Day. Appropriate women's dress (both in cut and in material) is yet another example.

People quickly assume that changes like these stem from different interpretations of Scripture. This may be true, yet it may not be: these may be changes in application while the interpretations remain the same. Once again, people are prone to confuse the two.

But people make other questionable assumptions as well. They assume that a change in interpretation constitutes progress. But it may just as well constitute regress. How can you be confident that the prevailing interpretation of the Bible today is better than the interpretation two hundred years ago? What if it is worse?

Progress assumes an objective standard of truth, goodness, or beauty that an imperfect thing gets closer to over time. Without a standard there is no progress, only change. So what is the objective standard that a new interpretation of Scripture is closer to or farther from?

It can't be collective opinion (i.e., "Everybody knows that . . . "), because collective opinion changes—it is a moving target, not an objective standard. If collective opinion were the standard there would be no progress, because every generation's interpretation is equally close to that generation's collective opinion.

Some people, sensing the problem, make another assumption—that changes in people's interpretations of the Bible are the Bible's fault, not people's fault. The Bible itself is flawed and self-contradictory, or at best it is a mirror of the thoughts and feelings of both the writers and the readers, not a message from a transcendent source. Or if it is from a transcendent source somehow, people's propensity to take what they want from it according to their own point of view is stronger than whatever the source may have wanted to communicate.

None of these assumptions are proven; they are merely asserted or kept hidden. In general, they are attempts to flee from the ultimate source of the Scriptures, God.

God's Word is the objective standard of its own interpretation. It is perfect, because God is perfect. Humans are not perfect, a truth that we tend to admit when it excuses us and deny the rest of the time.

A change in interpretation only constitutes progress when it drives us deeper into what the Bible says, in total and in detail, not away from it. Most so-called "progressive" interpretations of the Bible today are actually regressive—they take us further from light and truth by downgrading the validity of portions of the Bible that offend the spirit of the age.

I have hope that the interpretations and applications of the true church, the invisible fellowship of those newly born of God, are on the whole progressing in accuracy over time. But even for that group it is probably a roller coaster—sometimes better, sometimes worse, or better on this topic but worse on that one.

An interpretation of the Bible that claims that the Bible itself has the problem—that its well-meaning but mistaken writers did the best they could but said some inaccurate things about God and people—is a misinterpretation. It is not an interpretation but a correction, and it is correcting the wrong thing. We are the ones with the problem; we are the ones who need correcting by it, not the other way around.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Who ISN'T an Evangelical?

I recently saw a petition denouncing Donald Trump that was written by a group of evangelical leaders. The motivation of the quasi-big-shots who signed was to distinguish themselves from an undifferentiated mass of evangelical leaders that (they claim) the media portrays as Trump supporters.

I agreed with every word of their criticism of Trump's candidacy, and I didn't sign the declaration only because in this polarized environment it is likely to be construed as support for Clinton. (I've come out against both.)

But one problem I had with the petition was the signers themselves. A number of them are much too—ahem—generous to themselves when they claim to be evangelicals.

Some signers used to be evangelicals once but now are post-evangelicals or crypto-liberals. Some others may never have been evangelicals at all.

Of course, this begs the question, "What is an evangelical?"

Historian David Bebbington developed an influential four-trait model to answer the question. Other historians have put forth their own lists of characteristics, convictions, or values.

But a complementary way of defining something, in addition to saying what it is, is to say what it isn't. From the beginning, like any movement that makes waves, evangelicals were as remarkable for what they were against as for what they were for. What evangelicals in Germany, Britain, Ireland, and British North America rejected in their first hundred years or so (ca. 1730-1860) still helps us to sort out who is and who isn't an evangelical today.

1. Early evangelicals were anti-scholastic.

I don't mean anti-school or against education—far from it. I'm talking about a fine-grained and inflexible dogmatic theology as the standard of orthodoxy. Such standards were propagated by the University of Wittenberg (Lutheran) at the beginning of the period and Princeton Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) at the end.

Evangelicals were not necessarily anti-confessional or anti-creedal, but they challenged the tacit assumption that assenting to a detailed, orthodox confession was evidence of saving faith. Rather, saving faith was the disposition of the heart toward total reliance on Jesus Christ and his cross to be made right with God, evidenced by an "inner witness of the Spirit" and a holy life of benevolent love.

In general, evangelicals held firmly to the doctrinal distinctives of their disparate traditions. But they insisted that those differences did not justify a lack of cooperation among regenerate believers with different convictions.

Many extreme evangelicals—especially later, among the lower class, and on the American frontier—rejected doctrinal formulas of any sort. But all believed that they were insufficient as evidence of true faith and had to be subordinate to the religion of the heart.

2. Early evangelicals were anti-revisionist.

It is misleading to say they were anti-liberal, anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment, anti-intellectual, or anti-scientific. Many deftly integrated liberal ideals, modern philosophy, and scientific methodology into their belief systems.

But evangelicals stood against the eagerness in the Enlightenment (and in Romanticism after it) to simplify religion by removing or delegitimizing whatever offended the spirit of the age (which was presumptuously dubbed “reason” or “common sense”).

Evangelicals were inclined (often unconsciously) to use modern methods to find truth in Scripture they had not noticed before, but they refused to declare Scriptural phenomena and teachings fabulous, ingenuine, backward, or irrelevant in the name of reason.

Many extreme evangelicals rejected ivory-tower critical methodology, but all believed that it was insufficient to lead to truth and must be subordinate to the Bible as received.

3. Early evangelicals were anti-formalist.

They were not necessarily anti-liturgical, and they were even less likely to be anti-sacramentalist; indeed, revivalistic campmeetings started out as holy communion festivals.

However, a Protestant counterrevolution against both evangelicals and theological liberals in the nineteenth century—especially among Anglicans/Episcopalians but also among Lutherans and Reformed—identified sacraments and traditional liturgical forms as the means of saving grace.

By contrast, evangelicals expected God to work conversion through the individual's engagement with the Bible or in the new liturgical forms of the rural campmeeting and urban "protracted meeting." They demanded that a person testify to receiving grace through one of those channels before admitting them to sacraments. Likewise, evangelicals in traditions that baptized infants considered baptism a hopeful promise, not a saving power.

Many extreme evangelicals rejected anything that smacked of liturgical tradition, but all believed that liturgical, sacramental, and devotional forms were insufficient to bring life and were subordinate to the free movement of the Holy Spirit.

Who isn't an evangelical?

I am not like one of the aforementioned "extreme evangelicals." I often like to explore the area close to the line of confessionalism, modernism, and sacramentalism. Even when I don't get near the line, I find kinship with those who do.

But there is a line, and to be on the other side of that line is not to be an evangelical.

So let me break it down for you:

If you contend that ecclesiastically correct or aesthetically rich worship, devotion, or sacrament—ancient or postmodern—is what connects a person to God, you are not an evangelical.

If you contend that biblical teaching that offends modern sensibilities about sexuality, inclusivity, or the nature of truth needs to be overhauled, relativized, or explained away, you are not an evangelical.

And finally, if you contend that adherence to a thorough, precise, orthodox doctrinal confession is what makes an evangelical, you are not an evangelical.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Christian Case for Neither: Three Reasons Not to Vote for Clinton or Trump

Unless something very surprising changes my mind, I will cast a protest vote for President of the United States. I mean a vote intended not to elect anyone but instead to send a message, with others, that active participants in our democracy are hungry for something better than today's options. (At present I am leaning toward writing someone in.)

I came to this conclusion because I imagined that if I cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and woke up Wednesday morning to find that the person I voted for won, I would feel sick. I can't bear the thought of contributing to either of them becoming President.

I am sympathetic to the "lesser of two evils" argument, but I don't see a lesser evil outcome in this choice—or if there is a lesser evil, the evil is still too high.

Here are three reasons to vote for neither candidate, addressed especially, but not exclusively, to my fellow evangelical Christians. Two are reasons that voting for Clinton or Trump is a bad thing; one is a reason that voting for neither is a good thing.

Reason #1 – Clinton and Trump are excessively immoral.

"Excessively immoral" implies that there is a certain acceptable level of immorality. When it comes to electing someone to office, there is. All humans are sinners; all are immoral; all are, apart from the mercy offered in Jesus Christ, subject to God's stern, inflexible condemnation of evil. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). If we were only to elect officials without immorality, there would be no one to elect.

For this very reason, let me say at the outset that I feel sincere pity for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If you watched the Frontline episode "The Choice 2016," I hope you feel pity for them also. (It's being re-aired over the next week or so if you missed it.) Our new President, whoever he or she will be, is a sad, empty, bitter person.

Moreover, if I didn't have the relative moral advantages of my upbringing, not to mention the grace of God in Christ, I don't for a moment believe that I would be any better a human being than Clinton or Trump. I do not wish to judge them, because I too deserve judgment.

That said, the essence of choosing a president is to make a judgment, an evaluation. And both candidates fail.

The big, overriding reason is that, I am convinced, there is literally no lie Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will not tell in order to save their own skin. They have no compunction about deceit whatsoever. I'm not sure they know anymore when they're committing it.

Lying is a common sin and should not automatically disqualify someone from office. "For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual" (Jas. 3:2). However, though I don't know exactly where the fine line falls between lying and chronic, habitual, compulsive, pathological lying, I believe strongly that Trump and Clinton are on the wrong side of that line.

For Trump it's about looking out for Number One, and it's about saying whatever needs to be said at any moment to maximize the attention he draws to himself. For Clinton it's about the ends justifying the means—that is, in order for us all to reach utopia, she must have power; therefore, whatever gains or maintains power is a price worth paying. She does not have the utterly accidental relationship to the truth that Trump has, but she compensates by surrounding herself with people who instinctively deceive on her behalf to keep her machine running.

Both have been practicing deceit for decades, as has been well chronicled. If you're wondering whether this is worth overlooking, remember that Jesus said that whenever the devil "lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44 NIV). If you vote for Clinton or Trump, you are voting for a president who speaks fluent Satanese.

Beyond lying, Trump flaunts his immorality in almost every way imaginable, from his brutal sexual trophy-winning to his brazen greed to his titanic narcissism. "God opposes the proud" (Jas. 4:6)  is relentlessly repeated and demonstrated in Scripture (see, e.g., Dan. 4). Do we really want God to oppose our president and thus our nation? Do we think we can win that tilt?

When Clinton's husband was in power, we evangelicals insisted that character was essential to holding elective office and that Bill Clinton was not morally qualified to be president. We were absolutely right. Shame, shame on any one of us who changes their tune now.

Reason #2 – Clinton and Trump are committed to unconscionable policies.

Almost every political candidate supports a few policies that we think are bad, maybe even immoral. Yet we vote for them anyway, reasoning that this person supports fewer bad policies than their opponent.

Nevertheless, certain issue positions are dealbreakers: they are so unjust that even one of them is enough to make the candidate unacceptable. I maintain that both Clinton and Trump are fatally contaminated by their policy commitments.

Hillary Clinton's poison pill is abortion. Abortion is not a secondary issue for Clinton; it's not as though she maintains a pro-choice position because that's what the rest of her tribe is doing. Clinton is a dyed-in-the-wool acolyte of '60s/'70s-era feminism, which maintained that one essential feature of women's equality with men is for women to be able to have sex without consequences as men do. This is diametrically opposed to the Christian position that equality of the sexes means that men as well as women must be held responsible for the baby they make and that, whether a baby is conceived or not, there is no such thing as sex without consequences.

The baseline of individual freedom indeed includes the right to manage one's own body without interference, and this belongs inalienably to women as well as to men. But we routinely give the state power to interfere when what one person does to her body affects the welfare of someone else's body. We have the right to poison our bodies with alcohol if we choose, but we do not have the right to drive a car while we're doing it, no matter how good a driver we believe we are or how empty we believe the roads to be.

An unborn baby, even a one-celled embryo, is a distinct human life by any biological standard, carrying a unique, human genetic code. She is dependent on another human for basic survival, but so is a newborn. She is unable to reason and choose, but so is a late-stage Alzheimer's patient—in fact, the fetus is a more serious situation, because her days of reasoning and choosing on this earth are still ahead of her.

Pro-choice advocates often shoot back with the ad hominem accusation that pro-lifers only care about babies in the womb and don't care about the wretched conditions they are born into. I haven't found that to be true, but even if every pro-lifer is an obnoxious hypocrite it does nothing to blunt the pro-life logic. Imagine if the Nazis had justified their killing of Jews by accusing the British and the Americans of mistreating Jews who were alive. Would that defense hold? Your criticism of my hypocrisy does not excuse you—it's possible that we're both complicit in evil.

Speaking of ad hominems, you can find many millions of intelligent, well-adjusted, independent-thinking women who make the same case, so don't use my maleness as an excuse to ignore it. You might also look into the many men (doctors, etc.) who profit from abortions, not to mention the millions more who demand it of their wives, girlfriends, and daughters and domineer them into aborting their children—precisely the opposite of the liberation of women that abortion is supposed to facilitate.

Despite that many abortions are requested by women who can raise a child, the specter of the awful situations into which some children are born becomes ammunition for keeping abortion "safe [for one person] and legal." The assumption is that one of us has the authority to determine whether it is "worth it" if someone else lives or not. It is comfortable to think we can handle that authority responsibly as long as there is no human with lethal power over us looking at our lives and mulling over the same thing.

I am not categorically opposed to voting for a pro-choice candidate under any circumstances (though the stupendously disproportionate power of the President on this issue makes it difficult to ignore for that particular office). A groundswell of pro-life popular opinion could change the office-holder's mind. This is not so far-fetched—consider how rapidly Barack Obama "changed his mind" on same-sex marriage—and the further we get from the 1970s, the more the cultural momentum is swinging to the pro-life side.

But Hillary Clinton will never change her mind on abortion, even though she is liable to change her mind on literally every other issue if that's what it takes to stay in power. Unless a supernatural miracle occurs, she will insist on the free extermination of the unborn forever.

When I consider the policies of Donald Trump, things get fuzzier, because he has very little in the way of "policies" in a conventional sense. Instead, he has gut impulses and blunt statements. Yet those alone are morally inexcusable.

Trump wants to cut the tax rate for corporations and for the highest earners from 35 percent to 15 percent. I am willing to entertain the argument that corporate income is unfairly taxed twice—once when earned by the corporation itself and then again when it is distributed to its shareholders. But that's not the argument Trump makes. He boldly asserts that allowing extraordinarily wealthy people to get extraordinarily wealthier will create so many good-paying jobs that all of the rest of us will do much better and abound with gratitude.

This is ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is the notion that the nation will grow so wealthy that tax revenues will easily pay for government expenditures, which Trump has no interest in cutting, because that would make him unpopular. Things get even more absurd when you consider that Trump would spend lavishly to make the military even more "the best" and "the greatest." The result can only be financial cataclysm (which we're already steaming into without Trump) that will rock the global economy that America undergirds and result in unimagined suffering and chaos.

This will probably come to pass after Trump is dead and won't have to deal with it personally. Meanwhile, it is hard not to conclude that his main goal is simply to get as personally rich as he possibly can, regardless of the irrecoverable hits taken by the little people who supported him when it all crashes—which, by the way, has been his stance toward all of his investors for his entire career.

Secondly, Trump's attitude toward immigrants is morally indefensible. It's also wildly disconnected from the facts about immigrants—why they're here, what they do, what they're like, even how many are here and whether they're coming or going. In any case, as I've written previously, the attitude toward immigrants that Trump embodies is immoral and unbiblical and would set our nation up even higher for God's judgment.

Thirdly, Trump has a thin-skinned, personally combative nature that our nation hasn't had in the White House since Andrew Jackson. Jackson was not the president of a global superpower, and he did not have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the entire Earth. His rivals didn't either.

Richard Nixon is the only other president to compare to Jackson or Trump, but fortunately Nixon listened to Henry Kissinger. Trump listens to no one.

I do not know what exactly Trump would do other than "be tough" as President. "Being tough" in his fights with banks or his ex-wives haven't resulted in much more than tabloid fodder. Yet his long-practiced habit of relentless, overboard vindictiveness could result in the deaths of millions as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.

I am not a pacifist, and I believe that a government's show or exercise of lethal force is sometimes necessary to deter or neutralize threats to people's lives in this sinful world. But even when necessary it entails immense costs that Trump cannot conceive of, because he has never really paid any cost in his life that he is willing to admit.

Not only does Trump "speak evil words [and] use deceptive speech"; he also does not "strive for peace and promote it" (Ps. 34:13-14).

Reason #3 – A protest vote liberates us from the lies we want to believe.

This election is a marvelous opportunity for American evangelicals, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime grace. We should thank God from the bottom of our hearts for his mercy. The 2016 election is God's gracious, loving discipline to set his children free from our worldly folly about power and our own importance.

Every election we say the right words about how God is in control and sets up and deposes authorities at his will. We profess that the world will deteriorate in sin and will only be overcome by the return of Christ. We then proceed to think, speak, and act as if exactly the opposite were true. This year is the perfect moment to start walking our talk.

Don't hear me saying that it doesn't matter what choices we make at the polls and that we shouldn't care. Instead hear me saying that this is the perfect chance to downgrade our power in our own eyes and exalt God's in order to recover the proper tension between our responsibility and his sovereignty.

For more than a generation we have been sold a steady diet of falsehoods about power, righteousness, and America, especially by our own leaders (somewhat less so today). This is too big a topic to cover adequately here (and I am not qualified to do so), but a few points can outline it.

We believe that a spiritual awakening of many ordinary people will result in social change. We are right to turn our attention down the social ladder, but we are wrong about the results we expect, because elites have much more sway over long-lasting change than the masses, even in a democracy.

Ironically, we also believe that people with much worldly power produce social change, so we hope some of us will become powerful. But real power, the power of influence and attraction, isn't seized; it is mysteriously bestowed by others—in fact, by the very people that God does not want us to impress, because he wants us to impress him instead.

We believe that social change is something that powerful people engineer. But while they have a lot to do with it, social change more often engineers them, and when they do engineer it, it usually has unexpected and unintended repercussions.

We believe that we born-again Christians can be trusted with power, including the power to elect, because we have been changed. But our renewal is far from complete, and in fact nobody can be trusted with the least power in the least thing. Nevertheless, all of us down to the crying baby have some power, and we do have to sort out who is less untrustworthy with more of it than the rest of us. Yet we are to do so with the assumption that the sinner we empower will disappoint us.

We believe that if the nation were made to conform to our ideal, everything would be great for everyone. But we have great difficulty distinguishing which parts of our ideal come from objective, universal goodness and which parts come from our time- and place-bound cultural, regional, and class assumptions. We hate it when other cultures, regions, and classes impose their ideals on us, and we tend to retaliate in kind by imposing ours on them.

We believe that if the other side succeeds in imposing their ideal on us, we have lost. We will indeed have lost some precious things, because culture is precious. But culture—not to mention wealth and earthly comfort—is much more short-lived than we immortals are. The more pressure they put on us to sacrifice what really is eternal, the more of it we gain just by withstanding the pressure.

We believe that any false move could plunge our country into God's judgment. But we limit the possible false moves to a few hobbyhorse sins and ignore the vast number of ways our nation can and does sin in thought, word, and deed. In fact, we are being propelled further toward judgment all the time, yet that is not all bad. To the extent judgment chastens us, it's good. And if judgment is the opening bars of the Last Judgment, it is our deliverance.

Finally—though this is the least important point—we believe that without a party organ through which to speak, we have no influence on our nation. But white evangelicals' clinging to the Republican Party and black Christians' clinging to the Democratic Party have done nothing but make both groups of believers predictable, irrelevant, and exploited. This election is the perfect opportunity for evangelicals to declare our independence from the electoral process itself. If we demonstrate we don't need it, it will start needing us. We can make ourselves into a swing vote for 2020 and beyond, beholden to no one and not easily satisfied.

The political powers-that-be—including in our own tribe—have an interest in keeping us locked in these myths so that we continue to propel their ambitions. This election is the perfect chance to let go and be free. A "vote for neither" is a statement of our liberation from "this present evil age" as citizens of the age to come.

Friday, August 5, 2016

I'm Sorry: I've Invited You to Church for the Wrong Reasons

Dear people-I-have-wanted-to-come-to-my-church (and especially to those who actually come),[1 (see footnotes below)]

I am sorry. I have misrepresented to you the reasons for you to come to church. My only defense is that I didn't know what I was doing, because I misrepresented the reasons to myself too. I ask forgiveness for not representing the truth accurately, as some of you rely on me to do.

When I have invited you to church—and more often when I have encouraged a straggling, semi-regular attender to appear again—I have done so for your well-being. This is a major error.

It is a subtle error, to be sure. Because in fact, I have a good, God-honoring motive. Wanting another's well-being is of the essence of love, and God wants us to love each other.

It also happens to be true that coming to worship is good for your well-being. I have given you various reasons for this:
  • "In [God's] presence is fullness of joy; in [his] right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11 NASB).
  • It is a refuge and encouragement to faithful Christians who spend all week pressured and marginalized in an ungodly world.
  • Christian couples who frequently attend worship have lower divorce rates than those who don't.[2]
I have sincerely wanted you to reap all these benefits and many more.

My concern for you has become even more acute because of a shift that's happened nationwide during my nearly nine years as pastor of First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg: people who attend church are attending less often.

Even just a generation ago, "regular church attendance" meant about 46 or more weeks a year, and the off weeks were mostly due to sickness. Today, three or four appearances every two months is the baseline of "regular" in people's minds, even among people who think (and self-report) that they attend weekly.[3]

So I've been earnestly desiring your well-being while the frequency of your attendance (indiscriminately lumping you all together) has been dropping. And I remain certain that coming to worship every week is good for you. I've been appealing to you on that basis, not only if you are a non-attender and your welfare is our only common ground but also if you are a member of my church who claims Jesus Christ as Lord.

But I've been wrong. Your well-being is not the principal reason for you to come to church, even if it does help you—especially if you have already received God's forgiveness.

The reason to worship in church is because God wants it, and God deserves to get what he wants.

The principal reason to come to church is not your benefit, but his.

If you come, you will benefit, because God has so arranged the universe that what is best for him is best for everyone who loves him, in the end. He wants this for us more than we will ever know. But we only receive the benefit reliably when it isn't our main motive—when our goal is his benefit instead.

In the Book of Revelation, heaven is depicted as a continuous stream of praise by a gathered throng of all manner of spiritual beings, humans included. One of the words they say most is "worthy": "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power" (Rev. 4:11); "Worthy is the lamb who was killed [i.e., Jesus, the Son of God] to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and praise!" (5:12).

"Worthy" means, "you're worth it; you deserve it." And "you deserve it" means "we owe it to you." We owe the Triune God worship, praise, glory, and honor.

What's so special about God that we owe him worship? He "created all things"—including us—"and because of [his] will they existed and were created," and because Jesus was "killed, and at the cost of [his] own blood [he has] purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (5:9).

The reason to come to church is because God is more important than you, he wants you to worship him there, and you owe it to him because you owe him your life.

This may be difficult for you to accept.

For one thing, you may not believe that God cares whether multiple people sing and say congratulatory things to him in the same place at the same time. This is because your mind is shaped by the assumptions of your culture more than by God's perspective and wishes as revealed in the Bible. (Mine are too, by the way—this doesn't come naturally to any of us.)

You may think, "Why is God so vain that he needs people telling him how great he is all the time?" Answer: he doesn't need anything. He simply wants you to treat him the same way you treat everything else you value: you open your mouth and say how great it is, quivering with excitement, whether it's a sunset or a smartphone or a slapshot or a sister you are proud of.

You may think, "Why can't I do that by myself?" You should indeed do that by yourself—on your bed, in the wilderness, in the company of unbelievers, wherever. Good for you for doing it.

But that doesn't erase what the Bible says about doing it together. Go to and type "let us" book:Psalms in the search bar. Don't just scan the results; click on the verse references to read in context. Then read Revelation, especially these sections. Do you get the picture of what brings God glory?

It may also be hard for you to accept that you owe God worship in church because my approach has made it harder for you to believe it.

I have fallen into the trap of wanting you in church for your well-being because I've also wanted you in church for my well-being.

I feel a weighty responsibility to ensure the well-being of the institution that I serve. It is entrusted to me to shepherd it well, so I work hard to nurture its life and health and growth. I want you to be in church because I am too often afraid and embarrassed of failing.

Right or wrong, I find a great deal of my life's meaning and value in my work, which I can even more easily justify since it is "kingdom" work (i.e., work toward explicitly godly ends). I too often want you to be in church so that I know that I am worth something.

So, like the stereotypical car salesman, I think about what I need to do or say—or what I can persuade leaders, members, and other attenders to do or say—to get you and your family and your friends into church this Sunday.

I'm doing it for you, and I'm doing it for me. And I'm doing it for God in that I've always believed that God wants us to be there. But I have not been doing it because God deserves our best even though we don't deserve his.

So let's start over, you and I. Let's get on the right track. Let's repent. Let's confess our sin. Let's ask for forgiveness. Then let's "produce fruit that proves [our] repentance" (Luke 3:8).

Our obedience to God when we know what he wants is the measure of our love for God. It's that simple. And whoever's wishes you put ahead of God's is the person you love more than him.

Consider this when you look at your bedside clock on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning. Who are you disappointing—including yourself—if you get up and get dressed?

Consider this when you're making plans for Saturday night or for the whole weekend or for half the weekends of the year. Who are you disappointing if you say "no, I'm staying home"?

Consider this when you're registering your kids for activities. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "not that day" or "no more than once a month"?

Consider this when you're applying for a job. Who are you disappointing if you say "no" or "don't schedule me for then"?[4]

Whoever you don't want to disappoint is the person you love—or more likely, fear—more than God. Are they worth it?[5]

In my own repentance, I'm trying to make amends by telling you what I should have told you all along. But I was afraid of disappointing you. I was afraid that you would think I was a mean, judgmental Pharisee, and then you'd never come to my church. I loved, or rather feared, you more than God. And by loving you, I hurt you.

There's a song we like to sing whose chorus says, "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and . . . it's all about you, Jesus. I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it. . . ." The song is about confusing slick music with worship, so I often think it doesn't apply to me. But my misaligned motives bring me under its judgment.

Let's indeed come back to the heart of worship. It really is all about him.
Come, let us return to the LORD.
For He has torn us, but He will heal us;
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth. [Hos. 6:1-3 NASB]

[1] As this is an open letter to a broad set of recipients, I trust my readers have the discernment to recognize that not every single remark in it applies to every single reader.

[2] Whether one factor causes the other or whether another factor causes both is an open question.

[3] To my knowledge, evidence of this trend so far is anecdotal and hasn't been formally studied and precisely quantified, but the testimony is widespread enough that there seems to be something happening here. And it correlates with American Christians' beliefs about whether church attendance is "essential."

[4] I know that some people work on Sunday out of desperation to provide for their needs. I know that some people work a periodic Sunday rotation because they serve people who need care 24/7. Those are different matters entirely. I'm talking about choosing a regular Sunday job because you want to live on more rather than on less or because you like it or because you want to climb the ladder or because you want your boss's favor.

[5] If your question is, "What about the person who is too sick to come?" or "What about the person who is too disabled to leave their home?" or "What about the person who is the sole caregiver of a severely sick or disabled person?" I have two questions in reply. First, are you that person? Second, do you sincerely believe that I am referring to that sort of person in what I am saying?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Self-Expression, Freedom, the Supreme Good . . . and Bathrooms

So, apparently we're at a point in our civilization that one of our most important controversies has to do with where people use the bathroom. This alone should dismantle the myth of human progress.

Though I jest, I readily admit that there are issues of major importance in the transgender/public bathroom debate, notably the weighty questions, (1) what is a human as a sexual being?, (2) is a human being sharply divided between mind and body? (3) if there is a conflict between one's mind and one's body, which "wins" in moral reasoning?, (4) what is the proper balance between the concerns of the one and the concerns of the many?, and, (5) in what circumstances and to what extent ought the government to adjudicate the balance between the concerns of the one and those of the many?

As for question (1), I gave an entire series of talks on it (and if you want to jump to the part about transgender, that's here). But today I want to focus on question (4).

Our civilization is now so radically individualistic—and pampered—that people assume that "freedom" means that I can express who and what I think I am to the utmost, and everyone around me not only has to allow me to do it, but they also have to congratulate what it is I've expressed about myself. At least they must signal no disagreement whatsoever. If anyone says, "Dude, your self-expression is lame" or "abnormal" or (the horror) "wrong"—or if a community or organization says, "Express away, but we're not altering our custom or standards to fit your expression"—that's considered a violation of freedom. Sometimes it's even considered hatred.

My gut response to this state of affairs is that our entire civilization has regressed to adolescence; our obsession with being young forever has so gotten the better of us that the bulk of adults in our society have never grown up. But on further reflection, I admit that this strident individualistic demand on the surrounding world is not totally new or crazy. Indeed, in a certain vein I agree with it and share it myself.

One of the good and perhaps unique fruits of Western civilization is the conviction that there are certain things about an individual that are so sacred that society must go to the utmost lengths to avoid violating them. Historically, the chief among these—though it took a very long time to emerge—has been freedom of religion.

What most people today do not understand about freedom of religion is that religion is not primarily an identity marker or a means of self-expression. The confusion is natural, because in the Express Yourself Era, your favorite topping on a hamburger is marketed as an identity marker and means of self-expression. And without a doubt, there is an element of this that goes on in religion. People don't put "Jesus fish" on the backs of their cars for nothing; they do it to register to the world who they are. (Ironically, people with "COEXIST" bumper stickers are doing the same thing.)

Unfortunately, when religion degenerates into being mainly an identity marker for this tribe or that, then the situation is ripe for ugly, pointless power struggles and even bloodshed (e.g., Northern Ireland in the twentieth century). But over the first fifty years of the American republic, the critical mass that coalesced around religious freedom didn't view religion as an identity marker. They did not see religion primarily as the way to be me or even as the way to be us but as the way to be(come) good.

Some optimistically believed that if everyone tried to be good in the best way they knew how, even if their different ways clashed, the aggregate result would be a good country, and therefore a stable and prosperous one. But even those who were not so optimistic maintained that the individual's quest to be good was so superlatively important that it must never be restrained. Above all, an individual must never be coerced into doing something he or she believes to be morally bad. Therefore, the rest of society needed to bow down to that—it needed to accommodate itself to the needs of the individual who was trying to be good, even if the person was widely believed to be off the mark and if accommodating them was somewhat annoying to everyone else.

An assumption behind freedom of religion was that the most important relationship that an individual was negotiating was not their relationship with their society or even their relationship with themselves but rather their relationship with their omnipotent Creator and Judge. The individual was not trying to conform to a socially or individually constructed, subjective truth, which was temporary, but rather to the objective truth, which is eternal.

Advocates of freedom of religion also assumed the immortality of the soul. If this life is all there is, then whatever makes for the greatest comfort (however defined) in this life would seem to be of greatest importance (though it still leaves open whether the greatest good is the greatest comfort for the individual or for the many). But if the human self survives eternally in some form, and if that self's activity during its present biological lifespan decisively influences its comfort over an infinitely longer term on an infinitely greater scale, then individuals ought to be free to ensure their eternal well-being amid the discomforts of the present life, and nothing should stand in their way.

It is evident that the beliefs that once undergirded freedom of religion have largely been lost in our culture except among a strong and resilient minority. People may believe in a Creator, but they do not believe that the Creator is a Judge. They do not believe that that Creator is or determines truth, and thus "truth" is slang for "what seems 'right' to me or to us right now." Whether or not people believe in the immortality of the soul, people do not believe that there is a determining link between activity in this life and well-being in the hereafter. They certainly do not function that way; even many who pay lip-service to traditional religious beliefs function as if comfort in this life is the supreme good. And even if there is some connection between this life and eternity, fortunately the bar to be hurdled to reach everlasting blessedness is extremely low so that everyone or nearly everyone steps across it without trying to.

It was once believed that being good and doing good resulted in feeling good, though perhaps not until after death. Today, feeling good is considered to be being good in and of itself. Going after that feeling is what we mean by doing good, and the way to advance in that quest is self-expression.

It used to be that the most sacred thing about a person, which no institution should ever violate, was their attempt to live according to what their Maker said was morally right, as best as they understood it. Today the most sacred thing about a person, which no institution should ever violate, is their attempt to live according to what they, their own maker, believe to yield maximum comfort in their own skin at the present moment.

In sum, our civilization treats present comfort being me the way it used to treat eternal comfort being good. Therefore, a rule that sorts persons into segregated bathroom facilities based on genitalia is not only less than ideal because of the genuine difficulty it raises for some with gender dysphoria or certain intersex conditions. It is, rather, an immoral violation of the most sacred thing about a person, their self-concept, the expression of which is the chief route to painlessness now, which is the supreme good.

Regardless of bathroom management practicalities—and setting aside the acutely real problem of the suffering of gender-dysphoric and intersex people—I believe that the assumptions underlying our culture's elevation of individual expression are bogus. Its practical atheism, materialism, and subjectivism wilt before the God I've come to know.

Monday, March 7, 2016

How Decline Happens

In the early tenth century B.C.(E.), David expanded the nation of Israel into an empire with subject kingdoms spread across the Levant. His son Solomon did not extend Israel's reach militarily or politically, but he greatly increased its economic leverage and cultural prestige, which made Israel still more dominant—a Near Eastern superpower in the making.

Then in a span of about five years—from ca. 931 to ca. 925—Solomon's son Rehoboam presided over the contraction of the dominion of the House of David from a Levantine empire to a tiny (though wealthy) tributary of Egypt. The Davidic monarch went from emperor to client-king almost overnight.

 Conquest list of Pharaoh Shoshenq I (Shishak) (credit Olaf Tausch)

You can read about how this happened in 1 Kings 11:1-12:24; 14:21-31 and 2 Chronicles 10-12. Here are some lessons derived from it about how and why decline from supremacy happens. Apply to your church, organization, or nation as they pertain:
  • Decline begins while things are greater than ever—especially as to quantifiable measurables—but cracks in the edifice are beginning to show.
  • Decline follows unresolved (possibly smothered) internal strife over the stresses put on people to resource greatness.
  • Related strife comes from the inequitable sharing of the benefits of greatness—i.e., the concentration of privileges and resources in the tightening circle of those connected to power, into which others cannot break. (Note: Those in the circle are typically oblivious that there even is a circle and even more so about the arbitrariness of their privileges.)
  • Decline also follows compromise of the reason (purpose) that brought about greatness—the uniqueness, the mission—so that greatness becomes the end unto itself and does not serve anything outside itself.
  • Greatness brought about by God for his long-range purpose is forfeited when people cease to be humble and obedient and in awe of God alone.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Why Was Jesus Killed? 149 Reasons

Rembrandt van Rijn, Raising of the Cross (1633)

I looked in the New Testament to get answers about why Jesus was killed. I thought I'd find a few. I found a lot.

Granted, among the reasons for Jesus' death listed below, there is much overlap. But the list still shows the startling complexity of why Jesus was executed in Jerusalem, nearly all New Testament authors' keen interest in the subject, and their stubbornly repetitious insistence on substitutionary atonement (notwithstanding many other important, complementary reasons).

Please note: Whenever "we"/"us"/"our" is used below, in context it nearly always refers to people who have placed their trust in Jesus and his death as the source of their salvation.

Why was Jesus killed?

  • Matt. 2:2-3, 13—he was born the king of the Jews
  • Matt. 10:21-28—the Pharisees believed he was the devil incarnate
  • Matt. 12:14—he demolished the Pharisees’ criticism of his Sabbath activity with irrefutable reasoning from Scripture and assertion of his own authority
  • Matt. 16:21-23—it was God’s plan
  • Matt. 17:12—the authorities did not recognize him
  • Matt. 20:28—he gave his life as a ransom for many
  • Matt. 21:45-46; 22:15—he publicly alleged that the chief priests and Pharisees rejected God, and the people held him to be a prophet
  • Matt. 26:14-16—Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, betrayed him
  • Matt. 26:28—his blood sealed a covenant and was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins
  • Matt. 26:39—his Father wanted it
  • Matt. 26:54—it fulfilled the Scriptures
  • Matt. 26:59-66—the chief priests and the Council seized on Jesus’ quotation of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13 as the crime of blasphemy
  • Matt. 27:18—the chief priests and elders envied him
  • Matt. 27:20—the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas’ release instead of Jesus’
  • Matt. 27:24—Pilate wanted to prevent a riot
  • Matt. 27:37—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Matt. 27:46—he was forsaken by God like David was (Ps. 22:1)
  • Mark 3:6—the Pharisees/scribes believed him to blaspheme by forgiving sins on his own authority and to eat and drink in unholy ways, and he healed on the Sabbath
  • Mark 8:31-33—it was God’s plan
  • Mark 10:45—he gave his life as a ransom for many
  • Mark 11:18—he accused the chief priests and scribes of turning the temple into a robbers’ den, and the crowd was amazed at his teaching
  • Mark 12:12—he claimed to be the son of God (the Messiah) whom the chief priests, scribes, and elders rejected
  • Mark 14:10-11—Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, betrayed him
  • Mark 14:24—his blood sealed a covenant and was poured out for many
  • Mark 14:36—his Father wanted it
  • Mark 13:49—it fulfilled the Scriptures
  • Mark 14:61-64—Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and quotation of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13 were construed by the chief priests and the Council as blasphemy
  • Mark 15:10—the chief priests envied him
  • Mark 15:15—Pilate wished to satisfy the crowd, which had been incited by the chief priests, by releasing the insurrectionist and murderer Barabbas instead of Jesus
  • Mark 15:26—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Mark 15:34—he was forsaken by God like David was (Ps. 22:1)
  • Luke 2:34-35—he was appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign to be opposed
  • Luke 4:22-30—no prophet is welcome in his home town
  • Luke 6:11—he ignored and exploded the scribes and Pharisees' purity standards
  • Luke 11:53-54—he blasted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy
  • Luke 18:31-33—the prophets foretold it
  • Luke 19:47-48; 20:19, 26—he denounced the authorities in Jerusalem, and the people loved it
  • Luke 22:3-6—Satan entered Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, and led him to betray Jesus
  • Luke 22:20—his blood sealed a new covenant
  • Luke 22:37—he was counted among the criminals in order to fulfill Scripture (Isa. 53:12)
  • Luke 22:42—his Father wanted it
  • Luke 22:53—the people who wanted to seize him were granted the moment to do it and the power of darkness to execute it
  • Luke 22:70-71—the Council seized on his noncommittal response to their question as self-incrimination
  • Luke 23:24—Pilate conceded to the crowd’s demand that insurrectionist and murderer Barabbas be released instead of Jesus
  • Luke 23:34—his killers did not know what they were doing
  • Luke 23:38—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Luke 23:46—he committed his spirit to his Father’s hands, like David did (Ps. 31:5)
  • Luke 24:25-27, 46—Moses and the prophets said that the Messiah had to suffer what he suffered
  • John 1:29—he was God’s offering to himself to take away the sin of the world
  • John 5:16-18—he enraged the Jewish authorities by healing on the Sabbath and calling God his own Father, thus claiming to be equal with God
  • John 7:7, 19—he asserted that people did not obey God’s law and that their deeds were evil
  • John 7:25-26, 30-32, 44-52—the chief priests and Pharisees in Jerusalem did not recognize that he was the Messiah and disbelieved his claim to be sent from God
  • John 8:20—he alleged that the Pharisees did not know God, his Father
  • John 8:37, 40, 44—his true message did not find a place in the authorities because, like their father the devil, they hated the truth and wanted to murder those who tell it
  • John 8:59—he claimed to be eternal God
  • John 10:10, 15-18—he laid down his life of his own accord so that his “sheep” would have life according to his Father’s command
  • John 10:30-39—he enraged the Jewish authorities by claiming to be one God with the Father
  • John 11:48-53—the chief priests and Pharisees were afraid that if everyone believed in him, the Romans would depose them and annihilate the Jews as a nation, but that if Jesus died then diaspora Jews would return to Judea
  • John 12:32-33—he intended to draw all people to himself
  • John 15:13—he laid down his life for his friends, his disciples
  • John 15:18-20—the world hated him
  • John 15:21-24—the world did not know the Father and hated him too
  • John 15:25—the cries of David in the Psalms about being hated without a cause had to be fulfilled
  • John 16:2-3—his killers thought they were doing a service to God
  • John 18:11—his Father wanted it
  • John 18:33-34; 19:19-21—he was accused by the chief priests of pretending to be the king of the Jews
  • John 18:40—the chief priests demanded that Barabbas, a robber, be released instead of Jesus
  • John 19:7—he violated the Law of Moses by making himself out to be the Son of God (more than just the Messiah)
  • John 19:10-11—Pilate was given authority over Jesus by God
  • John 19:12—Pilate protected himself from the chief priests’ allegation that he was disloyal to Caesar
  • John 19:14-16—Pilate used him as a way to wrest a confession of allegiance to Caesar from the chief priests
  • John 19:19-22—Pilate was sending a message to the Jews that Rome would crush anyone who claimed to be their king
  • Acts 2:23—God knew it and planned it in advance
  • Acts 3:13-14—the people of Jerusalem disowned him in Pilate’s presence in exchange for a murderer when Pilate wanted to release him
  • Acts 3:17—both the rulers and the people acted in ignorance
  • Acts 3:18—God announced it beforehand by the prophets
  • Acts 4:28—God’s hand and purpose predestined it
  • Acts 7:51—the Council was stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, resisting the Holy Spirit just like their fathers
  • Acts 7:53—the Council received the Law of Moses as ordained by angels but did not keep it
  • Acts 7:32-35—he fulfilled Isaiah 53:7-8
  • Acts 13:27—the residents and rulers of Jerusalem did not recognize him or the prophecies written about him that are read every Sabbath, which they fulfilled by condemning him
  • Acts 26:22-23—Moses and the prophets said that the Messiah had to be subjected to suffering
  • Rom. 3:25—God displayed him as a propitiation that justified God’s merciful disregard of sins committed up to that point and God’s acquittal of those linked to Jesus through faith
  • Rom. 4:25—he was delivered up because of our crimes
  • Rom. 5:6-9—God demonstrated his love for us helpless, ungodly sinners by acquitting us and saving us from his wrath through Jesus’ blood
  • Rom. 5:10—it reconciled us to God while we were God’s enemies
  • Rom. 5:19—it was an act of obedience that designated many to be righteous
  • Rom. 6:6—our old self with its sin-corrupted body was crucified with him so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin
  • Rom. 6:7, 11—by baptism into Jesus’ death, we are dead to sin and held innocent of it
  • Rom. 7:4-11—through it we died to and thus were released from the Law that exacerbates our guilt by illuminating it and exciting our rebelliousness
  • Rom. 8:3-4—God did what the Law could not do: condemn sin in the likeness of sin-degraded humanity without condemning us, so that the requirement of the Law could be met in us
  • Rom. 14:9—it made Jesus Lord even over those who have died
1 Corinthians
  • 1 Cor. 1:18-25—God wisely planned to expose worldly wisdom’s inadequacy for finding God by using the foolishness of the cross to save those who believe it
  • 1 Cor. 2:7-8—none of the rulers of this age understood the secret truth of God’s wise, predestined plan
  • 1 Cor. 5:7—he is our sacrificed Passover lamb whose blood protects us from the deadly wrath of God
  • 1 Cor. 11:25—his blood sealed the new covenant
  • 1 Cor. 15:3—he died for our sins, in accord with what the Hebrew Scriptures said
2 Corinthians
  • 2 Cor. 5:21—God made him to embody sin in our place, even though he knew no sin, so that by him we would embody God’s righteousness
  • 2 Cor. 13:4—he was weak
  • Gal. 1:4—he gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, as God the Father wanted
  • Gal. 2:21—it was the necessary means for us to gain righteousness by God’s grace, because the Law does not deliver it
  • Gal. 3:13-14—he redeemed us from the curse embedded in the Law by embodying that curse on our behalf, so that Gentiles might receive the blessing given to Abraham and Jews and Gentiles might receive the promised Holy Spirit
  • Gal. 6:14—his cross makes his followers despised and as good as dead in the world’s eyes but also makes the world despised and dead to them
  • Eph. 1:7—it redeemed us and made possible the forgiveness of our crimes according to God’s rich grace
  • Eph. 2:13-16—it made made peace between Jews and Gentiles, uniting them in one body, by annulling the commandments of the Law that divided them, and it reconciled them to God as one
  • Eph. 5:26-32—he intended to make his church holy and clean in order to present it to himself as his wife, glorious and flawless, with whom he will become one
  • Phil. 2:8—he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death
  • Col. 2:19-20—it was God’s desire to make peace between himself and all things through the blood of Jesus’ cross
  • Col. 2:22—it reconciled us with God in order to present us holy, blameless, and beyond reproach before himself (provided we continue in the faith)
  • Col. 2:11-12—we are buried with him through baptism, which is Jesus’ means to remove our sin-corrupted bodies from us as a non-physical circumcision
  • Col. 2:14—in his crucifixion our unmet obligations were crucified too
  • Col. 2:20—it enabled us to die with him with respect to the elementary principles of the world
1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Thess. 4:14—it enabled those who die through him to rise as he did
1 Timothy
  • 1 Tim. 2:6—he gave himself as a ransom for us all, which was a timely testimony
2 Timothy
  • 2 Tim. 2:11—if we die with him, we will also live with him
  • Tit. 2:14—he gave himself for us in order to redeem us from every lawless deed and to purify for himself a people for his own possession that is zealous for good deeds
  • Heb. 2:9—he tasted death on behalf of everyone
  • Heb. 2:10; 5:9—it made him complete as the inaugurator of our eternal salvation
  • Heb. 2:14-15—by it he incapacitated the devil, who had the power of death, and delivered us who were enslaved through fear of death all our lives
  • Heb. 2:17; 5:1—it conformed him to his human brothers and sisters in all ways so that he could propitiate God for our sins as our high priest
  • Heb. 2:18; 5:2—it enabled him to help gently those who are tested at the point of death, because he was also
  • Heb. 5:8—it taught him obedience
  • Heb. 7:27—he offered up a once-for-all sacrifice to God when he offered up himself
  • Heb. 9:12—his blood enabled him to enter the heavenly holy place as high priest once for all because it obtained eternal redemption
  • Heb. 9:13-14; 10:10; 13:12—it was an unblemished offering that Jesus gave to God through the eternal Spirit that cleanses the consciences of defiled people from dead activities to serve the living God as holy people
  • Heb. 9:15-16—it redeemed the crimes committed under the first covenant and is the means by which Jesus mediated a new covenant, so that those who have been called to participate in it may obtain the promise of an eternal inheritance
  • Heb. 9:22—it made forgiveness possible
  • Heb. 9:23—it cleansed the accoutrements of the heavenly holy place to inaugurate their use
  • Heb. 9:28—he bore the sins of many
  • Heb. 10:10-18—by it he obtained single, complete, eternal, final forgiveness for all those who have been designated as holy by his death
  • Heb. 10:19-22—it gives us confidence to draw near to God in the heavenly holy place even now with a clean conscience
  • Heb. 12:2—he was motivated by the joyous prospect of ascension
  • Heb. 13:20—it enabled God to raise him from the dead
1 Peter
  • 1 Pet. 1:2—it cleanses us and ties us to God in a covenant
  • 1 Pet. 1:11—it was predicted by the Spirit of the Messiah through the prophets
  • 1 Pet. 1:18-19—it redeemed us (Gentiles) from the futile way of life handed down to us by our forefathers
  • 1 Pet. 2:21—his suffering for us left us an example to follow in our own unjust suffering
  • 1 Pet. 2:24—he carried our sins in his body so that we might die with respect to sin and live with respect to righteousness
  • 1 Pet. 2:24—by his wounds we were healed
  • 1 Pet. 3:18—he died for the sins of the unjust in order to bring us to God
1 John
  • 1 John 1:7—his blood cleanses us from all sin
  • 1 John 2:2—he himself is the propitiation for our sins and those of the whole world
  • 1 John 3:16—he showed us what love is by laying down his life for us
  • 1 John 4:10—God loved us and sent his own Son to be the propitiation for our sins
  • Rev. 1:5—he released us from our sins by his blood
  • Rev. 5:9—it made him worthy to unleash judgment on the evil world
  • Rev. 5:9—it bought people from every tribe, language, people, and nation for God
  • Rev. 7:14—it purifies those who endure the great tribulation
  • Rev. 12:11—it enables us to overcome the devil when we testify about Jesus

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


The English word "success" is interesting because of its dual meaning. A "success" is an object—a great achievement (or the acclaim it gets). A "success" is also a subject—a person who achieves something great.

What follows is not completely thought out and validated, but consider how success applies to a person who is in Christ.

In the flesh (temporarily) and in the view of the world, I am partly a success—that is, a successful person—and partly a failure. Almost everyone is; some are more one than the other depending on the standards by which the world is measuring.

In the flesh (temporarily) and in the view of God, I am not a success at all; I am an utter failure. Sin is failure, and I am full of sin.

In the Spirit (eternally) and in the view of God, I am a complete success, but objectively, not subjectively. Subjectively, I am neither success nor failure—I have achieved nothing, and I have committed no sin. Objectively, however, I am a success: I am Christ's success. My salvation, sanctification, and glorification are his accomplishment, his triumph. I am his trophy.

I am going to experiment with thinking about myself according to the Spirit, neither a success nor a failure myself, but as Christ's success.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Miracles Happen Suddenly, and They Take a Long Time

In the famous miracle story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, it is easy to miss the details about where the water came from before Jesus transformed it:
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, "Fill the water jars with water." So they filled them to the very top [John 2:6-7].
Six jars at twenty to thirty gallons apiece is 120 to 180 gallons total capacity. Do not overlook that they were unfilled and may have been completely empty, and the servants filled them to the brim.

To fill the water jars, the servants needed to draw water—a lot of it—from a well. Let's say they used a three-gallon bucket or two. If so, they may have lowered, drawn, and poured as many as sixty times to fulfill Jesus' request.

That did not happen all at once. There was a fairly lengthy amount of standing around and ongoing embarrassment for the groom and the headwaiter who did not know that Jesus and the servants were doing anything about it. Jesus changed the water to wine in an instant, but significant preparation was required before that happened.

This makes sense. This was the first miraculous sign Jesus performed, and he did it at about the age of thirty. To get to that point he needed to survive the diseases that probably claimed the lives of about 40% of the people born in Palestine the year he was born before they reached that age. (Of course, God would make sure that Jesus would survive that long, but the people around him did not know that.)

Jesus' conception itself was miraculous, of course, but centuries of prophecy passed before it came about. "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son" (Gal. 4:4 NASB).

This pattern happens aplenty in the Bible. The water jars remind me of Elijah's confrontation of the prophets of Baal. Elijah waited for most of the day while Baal's prophets failed to get their god to strike their sacrifice with lightning ("fire from heaven"). Then Elijah had to build a big altar out of found stone, then dig a ditch around it, then get firewood to put on top of it, then kill a bull and heave it on top of it. Then he had people fill four water jars—and since they were in the middle of a roughly two-year drought, they may have had to walk down seven hundred feet to the Mediterranean Sea to get that much water and then up again to bring it back—and pour the water on top of the altar. Then he made them do it two more times. Then he prayed. Then God incinerated the whole thing.

After this, Elijah prayed for the drought to end—seven times. (Unless you have prayed for the same thing in front of someone else seven times in a row, you do not know how uncomfortable this is.) Then a tiny cloud appeared on the horizon, and then a bit after that the downpour fell.

Miracles happen suddenly, but miracles take a long time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

All Truth Is Relative

Americus: That's true for you, but it isn't true for me.

Socrates: I'm sorry—what did you say?

Americus: I said, "That's true for you, but it isn't true for me."

Socrates: How could something be true for you but not be true for me? I mean, you are sitting at a table at Joe's, and I am sitting at the same table at Joe's. That's true for us both. If I said, "I am not sitting at Table 7 at Joe's at thus-and-such address," I would be wrong.

Americus: Well, maybe you would be wrong and maybe you wouldn't. Maybe the word "table" means something different to you than it does to me. But in any event, I wouldn't judge you as wrong if you said that you weren't sitting at Table 7. From your perspective, that might be true, and who am I to judge?

Socrates: Just to be clear, I'm not talking about you judging me or me judging you. I'm talking about judging whether a statement that I make or that you make is true or false.

Americus: Whatever. If that's a distinction you want to make, fine. But again, that's true for you, not for me. That's your perspective, not mine.

Socrates: What does my perspective have to do with it?

Americus: Everything is a matter of perspective. You see what you see based on where you are; you know what you know based on your view of things. No one else sees exactly what you see with exactly the same eyes from exactly the same angle with exactly the same experience backlog and exactly the same way and terms of categorizing and defining and making sense of what you see. It is totally individual, totally unique to you. And mine is totally unique to me. So how I could I possibly pass judgment on what you see? I can never see it as you. The only reasonable thing is for me to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is, in fact, true for you, just as what I see is, in fact, true for me.

Socrates: Well, whether that's the only reasonable thing or not, I'm not sure. But you can't really mean that you can't see the same things as I see. Look at that car out there. Now, if I got up, and you moved over to my seat in the booth and sat down where I sat, and you looked at that car, wouldn't we both agree that there is a car there? Wouldn't we both see the same car?

Americus: We might, or we might not. What you mean by "car" I might not describe as a car. I might describe it as an automobile.

Socrates: But those are the same thing!

Americus: Are they? Maybe they are the same to you, but they might not be the same to me. Who can say?

Socrates: The Oxford English Dictionary, US Edition?

Americus: That's collective opinion, but it does not describe what I see and the words I use. But I'm just messing with you. To tell you the truth, yes, I would agree that that is a car, and it is there out the window. But it is just coincidence that you and I think the same thing. I'm not saying that we can never agree about anything or that our perspectives never align. That would be ridiculous. What I'm saying is that just because multiple individuals' perspectives happen to align and agree, that does not mean that there is One True Perspective. All truth is relative.

Socrates: What's that now? All truth is relative?

Americus: Yes. I mean that whatever you perceive to be true is based on where you are standing, so to speak. And there are as many truths as places to stand. So for example, if I'm standing on one side of a river and looking at the river, I would say, "The river is flowing from left to right." And if you are on the opposite side of the river, you would say, "The river is flowing from right to left." These statements are contradictory, right? But we know that they are both true, because it depends on where you are standing. Everything is like this.

Socrates: Everything? I don't deny that some things are like that. But even in your example, we share a common definition of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." Those things are absolutes by which we sort out how our different truths, so to speak, are relative.

Americus: Are they really absolute? Aren't they just conventional? You and I happen to agree on the meanings of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." But that is coincidence. What if we did not? What if we didn't agree on the meaning of the words or spoke completely different languages? We would still both be true, or at least we should still each presume that the other is true and not pass judgment. Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view.

Socrates: Okay, but by your own assertion, that statement you just made—"Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view"—is only true for you. You can't assert it on me or reject my assertion that some things are valid for everyone.

Americus: Now you're getting it.


Americus: Seriously, you're getting it. My belief that every belief is true provided it corresponds to one's own perspective is true for me. Your belief that some beliefs are true if they correspond to a universal absolute is true for you.

Socrates: But if I believed that my belief in a universal absolute is only true for me, then that contradicts my belief in a universal absolute.

Americus: Yes, that is true for you too.

Socrates: (sigh) Okay, you win.

Americus: It's not about me winning. You didn't lose.

Socrates: Well, however you want to say it, what I mean is that I acknowledge that what you see to be true for you is true for you, and what I see to be true is true for me. Whether you meant to or not, you convinced me. Far be it from me to assert a universal truth and impose my own perspective on you.

Americus: That's remarkably gracious of you. I don't think I've ever seen someone think this sort of thing through and be so willing to change their mind.

Socrates: That's kind of you to say. But it's really a tribute to you making your point so well. But I want to ask you something else. Are you a gambling man?

Americus: Am I a gambling man? Not much. Every once in a while I go to the casino with friends and play a little blackjack, but it's not a big thing to me.

Socrates: Well I am a gambling man.

Americus: Really? You? That surprises me; I would not have guessed.

Socrates: It's true. Now, to be honest, I never gamble with money in a straightforward, gaming way. I've never put down money in a casino; I've never bet on sporting events or anything like that. But I take big risks based on my guesses about the future. My whole life is a big gamble.

Americus: I see what you mean. I never thought of it that way.

Socrates: Well today I want to do something that's out of the ordinary for me. I want to make a wager with you. The wager is about whether at some point tomorrow you will sit in this very booth at this very Denny's.

Americus: Which side are you going to take?

Socrates: That's up to you. If you bet that you will sit here sometime tomorrow, I'll bet you won't, and vice versa.

Americus: You know, I could be clever and two days from now claim that it was true for me that I came in here and sat down whether I believe that I actually did it or not.

Socrates: I hoped you would mention that. I'll actually spot you that. I will allow you to be the judge, from your perspective, of whether you sit here tomorrow or not. In fact, I'll rephrase the bet. My bet is that you will (or won't, depending on which side you choose) sit down at this table tomorrow from your perspective. And if you tell me the following day that it was true for you that you did or didn't sit down here, I'll take your word for it and pay my bet. Deal?

Americus: That's a really risky bet on your part! You're going to bet against what I say I'm going to do, which is risky enough, and then you're leaving it entirely to me to judge whether I did it?

Socrates: You got it. So which side are you taking?


Socrates: I'm serious! You can trust me.

Americus: Okay. I'll bet you that I will not come and sit at this booth tomorrow.

Socrates: All right. I'll bet you that you will sit at this booth tomorrow, and that that will be true for you whether or not it is true for me. Twenty dollars?

Americus: Fine. Twenty dollars.

Socrates: Excellent. Let's shake on it. Now, why did you bet that you will not sit here tomorrow?

Americus: Well, I could give you all sorts of reasons. I could say that it is easier for me not to come here than to come here; I would have to be intentional about coming here, but if I go about my usual routine for tomorrow then I will not. I could tell you that I hate going to the same restaurant two days in a row and never do it. I could tell you that I don't even particularly care for this restaurant and would never choose it myself and am only here because you asked me to come. And all of those things would be true. But I actually have an even bigger reason in this case, because tonight I am driving to Baltimore to stay in a hotel there to take a flight to Europe early the next morning, so I won't be anywhere near here all day tomorrow.

Socrates: Wow. When you lay out all the evidence for what is going to be true for you tomorrow, it makes my side of the bet look pretty bad! So I guess it's safe to say that even if you are scrupulously honest in two days, and what you tell me is true for you is honestly what you know from your perspective, there is almost no possible way that you are going to tell me that you sat in this booth anytime tomorrow.

Americus: It looks that way to me.

Socrates: Me too. So then, I want to redeem myself by making another bet.

Americus: Oh my God, are you kidding me? What is this?

Socrates: Hear me out. I bet you that at some point in the future, it will be true for you, from your perspective, that you will be standing before Jesus, the Son of God, to be judged by him for the deeds you've done and whether you accepted his forgiveness in this life.

Americus: What?

Socrates: You heard me. I'm betting that at some point in the future you will be judged by Jesus. And everybody else who has ever lived will too, but that's not the focus of my bet. My bet is about you.

Americus: Come on, man. I already told you that what you believe about God and Jesus and sin and judgment and stuff is true for you but it's not true for me.

Socrates: Oh, I know; I totally agree. I don't presume at all to make what is true for me true for you. I know it isn't true for you today. That's not my bet. I'm betting that it will be true for you at some point in the future. I'm saying that at some point in the future, you yourself, as an individual, from your own perspective, will believe it to be true of yourself that you are being judged by Jesus the Messiah for your present life. That's my bet.

Americus: Look, even if I agreed to that bet, it's a bet that I can never collect on. "At some point in the future"? If I ever claim to win, you'll just say, "It hasn't happened yet."

Socrates: That's true, but look at the other side—if I win, I won't be able to collect, because you'll have nothing to pay me, and I won't be able to do anything with anything you gave me anyway. But I'll make it easier on you. We'll make this bet inheritable by our descendants so that they are obligated. And I'll put a limit of, I don't know, a hundred thousand years. And I'll tie your judgment to universal judgment. So if in a hundred thousand years universal judgment by Jesus Christ has not occurred, my descendant will pay your descendant whatever we agree on today, if that makes any sense then.

Americus: I still think it's a stupid bet.

Socrates: Well, I think you're right, though maybe not for the same reason. So let's just make it an imaginary bet then, not one we're actually going to make. Let's pretend that we could actually collect from each other at some point. Would you take that bet? Would you bet that it will never be true from your perspective that you will be judged by Jesus?

Americus: I don't know. I don't know how what is going to be true for me in the future.

Socrates: Hold on now. Don't be so quick to doubt yourself. You were very certain a few minutes ago that it will not be true for you tomorrow that you will sit in this booth. How could you be so sure about what will be true for you tomorrow but you have no idea what will be true for you at some other point in the future?

Americus: Because I have good reason to believe what my life is going to look like tomorrow. I have good reason to know what I'm going to be doing then.

Socrates: Exactly. You have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you tomorrow. And I have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you at some other point in the future. This isn't about what is true for me. It's about what is true for you. I think that what will be true for you in the future, from your perspective, is not the same as what is true for you today, and I think I know what your perspective will be at that future point. Want to hear the reasons?