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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Four Aspects of the Gospel (1)

What's the gospel?

1. The kingdom of God is replacing the kingdom of the world.  "[Jesus] said, 'The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the gospel!' " (Mark 1:15).

By "the kingdom of God" we mean the kingship of God.  That is, the Greek word does not refer to a place (like the United Kingdom) but to God's status and authority as king.  The kingdom of God is the reign of God.

That God's kingdom (kingship) has come is good news, because it means that the rightful Ruler of Earth has reasserted his royal power and prerogative in the face of the usurping rebel, Satan, and all the sinful angels and humans who have joined in his rebellion.  We live in a lawless, chaotic, unsafe place.  But there is good news: God's kingdom has returned and is reestablishing law and order for the good of the world.  An angel in Revelation says, "In the days when the seventh angel is about to blow his trumpet, the mystery of God is completed, just as he has proclaimed [literally 'evangelized' or 'preached the gospel'] to his servants the prophets" (10:7).  When the seventh angel finally does blow his trumpet "there were loud voices in heaven saying, 'The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever' " (11:15).

It is fitting that Jesus announces the coming kingdom when he comes because he personifies the kingdom.  He is both the King of the Jews and the first, obedient Servant of God.  If the kingdom is God's authority made manifest, Jesus is it.  He is the executor of God's authority (as in casting out demons for instance) and is subordinate to God's authority (doing the Father's will at all times, even to the point of death), which makes him worthy to be exalted above every name.  "The glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God," is that "Jesus Christ [is] Lord" (2 Cor. 4:4-5; also Acts 10:36).

The kingdom of God is replacing the kingdom of the world in Jesus Christ.  That is good news.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Four Aspects of the Gospel (Intro)

What does "gospel" mean?  "Good news," many of you illustrious Sunday School graduates reply.  Right; so what's the news?  "Um, you know, it's about, uh, Jesus and stuff . . . where's the coffee?"

I'm just messing with you—I know that most of you readers know that the good news is who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what his work accomplished.  But it's true that sometimes putting those things into words can be tough, in part because there are so many things that could accurately be said.  Names and titles of Jesus that reveal his character abound, as do word-pictures to describe what he accomplished for us.  And Jesus did so many things that the Gospel-writers were hard pressed to decide what to include!

As we try to define "gospel" biblically, there are two important things we ought to remember.

1. The gospel is not just one thing.  It isn't a particular phrase, title of Jesus, or aspect of his work.  It isn't a single verse (John 3:16, I'm talking about you, awesome though you are).  It isn't a single metaphor for salvation.  Any claim that the gospel is this and only this, and if you don't say this then you're not talking about the gospel, is wrong.

2. The gospel is not everything.  The entire Bible is true; in fact, it includes an enormous amount of truth.  But it's not all what the Bible calls the gospel.  For example, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1) is true, but it isn't the gospel.  One might make a case that all biblical truth is somehow connected to the gospel, however distantly, but that doesn't make it the gospel.  Likewise, the existence of different perspectives on a given theological principle does not necessarily mean that the gospel is under attack (though sometimes it does).

As I see it, what the New Testament says about the gospel can be grouped into four basic, related categories—these are the four aspects of the gospel.  I'll start detailing these next time.

(By the way, these four aspects of the gospel as I describe them are not the same as Aimee Semple McPherson's "Foursquare Gospel," the central doctrinal plank of the Foursquare Church, although McPherson's scheme is a fine one—you can check it out here.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Keeping the Law Within

Christians who believe that the Bible is true because it is God's Word have an uncomfortable relationship with the Law of Moses delineated in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  In fact, there has been substantial diversity of opinion about how to regard it going back to the apostles themselves (see Acts 15:1-35; Rom. 14:1-15:13; and so on).

This difficult question stems from the often difficult-to-reconcile words of our Lord Jesus himself.  Undoubtedly Jesus believed that what we call the Old Testament was the Word of God (see, e.g., Matt. 5:17-19; John 10:34-35).  So it is not surprising that in Mark 7 Jesus says that the Fifth Commandment (to honor one's father and mother) isn't just Moses' word, but God's Word.  But a bit later in the same chapter Jesus declares all foods clean, directly contradicting Moses' word in the same Book of Deuteronomy.

Does that mean that the food laws in the OT aren't God's Word?  No it doesn't, but something has changed.  But what?  And how do we apply the change to the rest of the Law?

This isn't just an academic question.  It is frequently brought to bear on the hot-button issue of homosexuality.  Some argue that homosexual activity is wrong in part because of Old Testament Law, and those who engage in it or endorse it are sinning.  Others argue that that law was abolished by Christ's work on the cross like the food laws were and that those who insist on it are legalistic Pharisees.  Obviously, since the judgment of God is at play here, the stakes are high for both sides.

We can look at the problem of the Law from a number of angles, but the one that I think is most useful comes from the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah and enacted by Jesus' blood: God says, "I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds" (Jer. 31:33).

Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law (Matt. 5:17).  He came to take the written Law that mandated behavior from the outside and infuse it into a person's being so that it welled up from the inside.  Instead of being written on stone or papyrus, it would be written on the conscience of the person him- or herself.  Rather than keep jamming square pegs into round holes, Jesus came to make square pegs round by bringing people to life through the Holy Spirit.

But when the Law of Moses moves from the outside of a person to the inside, the Law changes in one of two ways.

Sometimes the Law is intensified when it is written on someone's heart.  For example, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery' [Ex. 20:14].  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:27-28).  So as long as the Law was on the outside the focus was on not physically having sex with someone else's wife.  But when the Law moves inside the focus is on not even imagining committing that sin.  Now if one keeps from imagining committing adultery, one isn't liable to commit it physically either—that action is still wrong.  So writing the Law on the heart actually makes some Law more rigorous than it was before; it strengthens rather than nullifies the old commandment.  All the sexual laws (including homosexuality, incest, bestiality, premarital sex, and so forth) fall into this category.

But other times physical requirements of the Law disappear when the Law is moved into the heart.  The food laws are an example.  The food laws were to keep people from making themselves "unclean" with "unclean" food.  If we take that concept from outside our bodies into our hearts and minds, what does it mean to keep ourselves "clean" within?  Being inwardly clean entails putting to death "evil ideas [specifically pertaining to] sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly.  All these evils come from within and defile a person" (Mark 7:21-23).  So the way Christians who have the Law written on their hearts keep the food laws is not by avoiding "unclean" foods but by avoiding unclean thoughts.  The physical foods themselves are irrelevant.

So when you read the Old Testament and wonder if a given instruction applies to you, the answer is always yes.  But the important follow-up question is, "How do I keep this command in my heart and mind?"  That may remove the physical obligation or it may reinforce it.  But inwardly we are still to keep it.

This is real Law-keeping.  "For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code.  This person's praise is not from people but from God" (Rom. 2:28-29).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Moral Consequence of the Federal Budget Deficit

Some of the issues that governments grapple with have obvious moral ramifications, and moral philosophy and theology are brought to bear to sort out the right thing to do—for example, the legality of abortion.  Other governmental issues don't seem to have any moral ramifications in most cases but are purely practical—for example, whether your yard debris will be picked up on a Tuesday or a Wednesday.  But there are also some issues that fall somewhere in between.

One of these issues, in my opinion, is our enormous budget deficit at the national level, really just the latest in a string of deficits, although this fiscal year's makes those large deficits look puny by comparison.  On the one hand, questions of how and how much to tax and how and how much to spend can be pretty "wonky" (technical), involving lots of complicated numbers that technically oriented people with practical minds are trying to figure out for the best for everyone.  But on the other hand there are some moral principles involved too, like the virtues of frugality and civic duty, the justice or injustice of wealth redistribution, the appropriate sphere of government, and so forth.

But I would like to suggest that our persistent federal deficits have consequences that are even more morally weighty than we are inclined to think.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama spoke at length about human rights.  This was the first sustained statement on this subject from an American president or presidential candidate that I could remember hearing for a good while.  Do you remember when advocating for human rights for people around the world was a pretty big part of what we Americans thought we were here for?  This was a major reason that we pushed for the creation of the United Nations after World War II.  And even though many human rights advocates then and now are secular types, the roots of the very concept of human rights lie in biblical Christian theology.

When Thomas Jefferson, no orthodox Christian, wrote that people have been "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," he was expressing a concept that went back centuries among believing people.  Christians confess that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.  One reason that the second greatest commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself, is "like" the greatest commandment, to love the Lord with all one's being, is that we aren't loving God if we vandalize pictures of him, which human beings are—pictures twisted by sin, but pictures nonetheless.  (See also Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9-10; 1 John 3:104:20-21.)  So human rights are the obverse of the duties we owe to God to respect his image in his human creatures.

Human rights used to be a pretty big deal in U.S. foreign policy (or at least the talk we used to talk).  But over the past few administrations the foreign policy focus has been on terrorism and trade.  Sometimes these concerns have furthered human rights, but other times they have compromised them.

Let's take China for example.  Our economy is built on buying inexpensive consumer products from China.  If there were no China, there would be no Wal-Mart.  If there were no Wal-Mart, there would be no cheap stuff to buy.  And if there were no cheap stuff to buy, then the American middle class would be materially poor, and the American poor would be even poorer.

But our need to trade with China compromises our ability to rebuke China for its rampant human rights abuses.  If we tick them off so much that they stop selling to us, we're in trouble.  So we have to keep playing nice and not make a big deal about their repression and brutality.

On the other hand, China needs our marketplace as much as we need their vendors, so maybe they wouldn't stop selling to us entirely no matter what we did.  But they could stop buying our debt.

See, back in the old days, when the government spent more than it took in, it got loans from the people of the United States in the form of savings bonds and treasury bills.  When the government paid back the loan, Americans who made the loans by buying the bonds benefitted.  So even if the U.S. was publicly poor at any given moment, we were getting privately rich.  But have you noticed that not once since deploying our military in Afghanistan and Iraq has our government asked us to buy "war bonds" as it did during World War II?  That's because the government today doesn't expect Americans to loan the government enough to keep it going.  We now expect other nations to pick up the slack.

Other nations are pretty willing to do this because the U.S. government is about the safest investment around.  We've been going for well over 200 years and have never defaulted on a loan.  So when nations like China are looking for a safe place to put their extra cash, they invest in us.  Therefore, when we spend publicly more than we take in, we rely on them to make up the difference.  And because we rely on them, we have to be careful about what we say and do.

Because if we really got on China's back for its censorship of information (heard about Google today?), its abduction of human rights activists, its torture of house-church pastors, and its propping-up of the toxic regime of Kim Jong-Il in North Korea (if China really thought North Korea's behavior was problematic it would end in a second), then China might stop buying our debt and thereby pull the plug on our deficit spending.

And then the party would be over.  No more war on terror.  No more Medicare.  No more sub-European tax rates.  We would actually have to pay for what we buy.  Whether in loss of security, services, personal wealth, or some combination of the three, we would suffer.

So instead of suffer we allow China to do its tyrannical thing and just furrow our brow every so often in their direction.

I am not using this post to advocate for how we erase the deficit, whether by raising taxes (preferred by liberals and statists) or by cutting spending (preferred by libertarians and conservatives, except for defense spending in case of the latter) or by both.  But I am claiming that as Christians who believe that humans created in God's image have rights, we must find a way to do so.  The deficit is a moral issue.  Every dollar our government spends that we taxpayers do not pay weakens our willingness to confront injustice and subsidizes the persecution of our brothers and sisters in Christ half a world away.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Clearer View of God

Here is a quotation from a modern Christian classic (1961) that I commend to anyone who has an unfulfilled thirst for God and to anyone who wants to acquire such a thirst:

To regain her lost power the Church must see heaven opened and have a transforming vision of God.
But the God we must see is not the utilitarian God who is having such a run of popularity today, whose chief claim to men's attention is His ability to bring them success in their various undertakings and who for that reason is being cajoled and flattered by everyone who wants a favor.  The God we must learn to know is the Majesty in the heavens, God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, the only wise God our Saviour.  He it is that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, who stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in, who bringeth out His starry host by number and calleth them all by name through the greatness of His power, who seeth the works of man as vanity, who putteth no confidence in princes and asks no counsel of kings.
Tozer goes on to "present a brief summary" of the conditions we must meet to attain to the true knowledge of this God:
First, we must forsake our sins. . . .
Second, there must be an utter committal of the whole life to Christ in faith.  This is what it means to "believe in Christ." . . .
Third, there must be a reckoning of ourselves to have died unto sin and to be alive unto God in Christ Jesus, followed by a throwing open of the entire personality to the inflow of the Holy Spirit. . . .
Fourth, we must boldly repudiate the cheap values of the fallen world and become completely detached in spirit from everything that unbelieving men set their hearts upon. . . .
Fifth, we must practice the art of long and loving meditation upon the majesty of God. . . .
Sixth, as the knowledge of God becomes more wonderful, greater service to our fellow men will become for us imperative. . . .
And we must seek purposefully to share our increasing light with the fellow members of the household of God.  This we can best do by keeping the majesty of God in full focus in all our public services. . . .
There's a lot more good stuff here that I have omitted, and the rest of the book explores each of God's wonderful attributes in short, invigorating chapters.  It's a great read, and I recommend it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


I write my blog posts intending to edify.  This one . . . well, I really don't know if it's edifying or not, but it is so original, fascinating, and bizarre that I just had to pass it along.

There exists a blog called GodBricks that (and I quote) "blog[s] at the intersection of LEGO and religion." In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.  Maybe you've heard of it.  It's actually fairly amazing.  I encourage you to nose around there.  At the very least check out a pictorial biography of Martin Luther in LEGOs, and read this thoughtful piece that wrestles with the question, "What Would Jesus Build?"  There is also a good essay on people's different motivations for their religious LEGO-building.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Temptation in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

For reasons I am only beginning to grasp, for a while God has been speaking to me from his Word about how he sometimes takes his loved ones into the desert.  There are multiple biblical examples of this.  In fact, just within the first few chapters of Luke, which I am currently reading, there are at least two.  The latter is the famous account of Jesus being led by the Holy Spirit into the desert following his baptism to be tempted by the devil.

The Hebrew word satan and the Greek word diabolos (from which we get "devil") both mean "accuser."  (You might find it interesting that we don't actually know the devil's name.  We just know his titles: accuser, tempter, evil one, god of this world, prince of the power of the air, ancient serpent, etc.)  At the heart of the devil's temptation is the accusation that Jesus is not the Son of God.  Notice that the devil begins two temptations by saying, "If you are the Son of God . . . ," and in the other temptation he offers rule over the earth's kingdoms that are his by right as the Son of God already.

The title "Son of God" applies to Jesus whether we are looking at him "top down" (i.e., from the perspective of his divinity first) or "bottom up" (from his humanity first).  "Top down" Jesus' essential identity is the Son of God—he is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, the Eternal Word, the everlasting Son of the Father who is before all things, and through whom all things were made (Col. 1:15-17).  "Bottom up" Jesus' calling was to fill the prophesied role of the Son of God by his obedience to the Father, by which he would receive the royal authority over all the earth promised to the son of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16; see also Ps. 2, esp. vv. 7-9).  So when the devil insinuates that Jesus is not the Son of God, he disputes Jesus' identity and calling in relationship to God.

He makes the same accusation against any of God's people whom God has taken into the desert.  When you are in the desert, Satan will whisper to you in your own thoughts or through the critical voices of others that you are not who God says you are and that you are not appointed or fit to do what God has called you to do.

Being in the desert means being unsatisfied, as Jesus' hunger attests.  The devil tempts the believer to "make stones into bread," to go outside of God's appointed order to get satisfaction at any cost.  Jesus' reply reminds us that not only does true satisfaction only come in conformity to God's will expressed in God's Word, but that obedience to that Word itself sustains and satisfies when there is nothing else around that does the job (see also John 4:31-34).

Being in the desert means lacking control over things and people, because there is nothing to possess and use and no one to take your orders.  The devil tempts the believer with "all the kingdoms of the world," all the power and control over the world around you, persons and things, that you lack.  Jesus' reply reminds us that the cost of that power is to yield all one's power to the evil one in worship, which is far too high.

Being in the desert means hearing no applause and praise from others, no "attaboys," no fame.  It means being a nobody, out of the attention of others.  The devil tempts the believer to jump in front of everyone and win their admiration.  Jesus' reply reminds us that, just as he had supreme confidence in his Father and in himself and did not need the adoring crowd to tell him who he was, so it is with us.

When you lack satisfaction, control over your surroundings, and mass approval, you know you are in the desert.  The Holy Spirit takes us into the desert to teach us to detach from these things and to prefer obeying God to them.  The tempter is the Spirit's unwitting assistant.  We learn our lesson by being led by the Holy Spirit, who always uses the Word of God to remind us of who we are, what we are to do, and who we are doing it for.

God leads his beloved into the desert to prepare him or her to handle satisfaction, control, and mass approval properly, because he is going to do something through his beloved that will cause these things to balloon in his or her life.

In other words, he leads his beloved into the desert to make him or her like Jesus.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bad Good-Guys and Good Bad-Guys

Hey, team.  If there are readers of this blog who read it as consistently as I write it and have been puzzled by the silence over the last week, it is because I've been out of town on vacation.  But that doesn't stop the ideas from coming, so today I'm getting back into it.

I've noticed in contemporary entertainment—especially among those performers, producers, critics, and viewers who consider themselves smart—a tendency to look for the flaws in the good guys and the heart of gold in the bad guys so that every character ends up more or less morally mediocre or conflicted.  Now, this kind of thing is often interesting and entertaining (e.g., Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or the characters in my current favorite TV show, Lost).  But this tendency has become so pervasive among snooty people that if one likes productions with good good-guys and bad bad-guys, one is not considered "intellectually serious," which is an extra-pretentious way of saying that one is a moron.

You can find examples of this all over the place.  Cynical reviews of movies with genuine heroes are a dime a dozen.  Take Manohla Dargis's review of Amazing Grace, a "squeaky clean," "prettified take on the life and times of 18th-century reformer William Wilberforce," a character the movie portrays as "too good to be true," possibly "wildly simplistic, even borderline caricature."  (She does have some good things to say about the movie—"it does make you think"—but they are buried under the drift of cultured disdain.)  And I'm sure it's not hard for you to think of a mountain of productions with flawed good guys (e.g., Jack Bauer).  Such shows get good reviews.

On the flip side is the mountain of shows that want you to cheer for the bad guy, like The Sopranos.  Another category includes revisionist takes on classic characters like the Broadway hit Wicked, a reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz.  (You thought the green lady was evil and Glinda was good?  Think again.)  These also generally get good reviews.

So what are we to make of the modern inclination to make the good guys a bit bad and the bad guys good?  With respect to the former, we could say that it acknowledges that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23, NIV).  That is, it is biblical and realistic to portray even good people as imperfect, because all people are.  And we could also say that showing the good side of bad people is biblical, because even though the image of God is distorted in all of us humans, sin has not entirely destroyed it in anyone.

But are the people who make and praise productions full of moral ambiguity and who pooh-pooh productions with pure heroes and villains really doing this for the glory of God?  Are they flattening black and white into shades of gray to honor him?  Perhaps I'm being ungenerous, but due to the lack of reference to God in their creative output I'm going to guess that his glory is not their primary motivation.

So why is moral ambiguity all the rage?  I have a couple of guesses.  One is that many of these people have jettisoned belief in the biblical God entirely or at least have placed him on the sidelines of their lives.  If there is no absolute standard of righteousness in view, which God is, then it becomes naturally harder to see wickedness as wickedness.  Once it is hard to see wickedness, then righteousness in humans becomes harder to see as well.  In other words, contrast is lost.

My other guess is that it is reassuring to sympathize with the "good side" of the bad guy if one is a bad guy oneself, because one can then rationalize one's behavior by thinking (perhaps subconsciously), "If people just saw the other side of me, all I do and all I've been through, then they would realize I'm not so bad after all."  But in order to maintain the delusion of one's own righteousness, one has to make sure that there is no truly righteous person around who reveals oneself to be a fraud.  So every truly good person has to be taken down a peg or two by being unmasked as not actually being as virtuous as they look.  The upshot is that if bad people are kind of good and good people are actually bad, then I, a bad person, can keep making myself and others believe that I'm just as good as everyone else.

The way the "emperor" in this situation doesn't get called out for wearing no clothes is for all the worldly wise, noble, thoughtful, intelligent, balanced people to believe that admiring truly good people and deploring truly bad people is the surest way to being made fun of and rejected by all the other wise people in the world.  Thus the groupthink among the most rarefied artists and critics in the entertainment world.

God's perspective?  "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isa. 5:20, NIV).

And by the way, as I understand it, the same phenomenon appears in modern literature (that I don't actually read) and at times in modern sports entertainment (that I do consume).