Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Jesus’s Uniqueness

I’ve made a practice over the years of talking in sermons and lessons about Jesus’s uniqueness. Examining him as the gospels present him (as well as how the apostles spoke of him in their preaching and letters), there is no doubt about it: He’s perfect. The perfect human - indeed more than human - but human, and so perfectly.

Michael Reeves, the president of Union School of Theology in Wales, is one of my two favorite living theologians (along with Graeme Goldsworthy). Reeves has an arresting two paragraphs on Jesus’ uniqueness that is worth devoting a whole blog post to. In terms of sheer power, I place this short passage up next to CS Lewis’s famous Liar, Lunatic, or Lord passage in Mere Christianity.

Enjoy:

Generous and genial, firm and resolute, (Jesus) was always surprising. Loving but not sloppy, his insight unsettled people and his kindness won them. Indeed, he was a man of extraordinary - and extraordinarily appealing - contrasts. You simply couldn’t make him up, for you’d make him only one or the other. He was red-blooded and human, but not rough. Pure, but never dull. Serious with sunbeams of wit. Sharper than cut glass, he out-argued all comers, but never for the sake of the win. He knew no failings in himself, yet was transparently humble. He made the grandest claims for himself, yet without a whiff of pomposity. He ransacked the temple, spoke of hellfire, called Herod a fox, the Pharisees pimped-up corpses, and yet never do you doubt his love as you read his life.

“With a huge heart, he hated evil and felt for the needy. He loved God and he loved people. You look at him and you have to say, ‘Here is a man truly alive, unwithered in any way, far more viral and vigorous, far more full and complete, far more human than any other.’” (Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ, 54-55, emphasis in original)

The reason I’m a Christian is not because I was raised in it or because America is a Christian nation (in fact, compelling studies have suggested that it is doubtful that even 15% of American self-professed Christians are truly living in Jesus.) Rather, I’m a Christian because of what Reeves distilled above: Jesus is perfect, and his identity, genuineness, and truth are unassailable. To know him is to know life, and life to the fullest. Hence, “He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20). If taking up a cross daily, whether literally or figuratively, meant drawing closer to Him, it would be worth it, because in him is life and life eternal

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Phil Vischer, the Gospel, and True Righteousness

Pastor Gabriel Hughes of Kansas has written a thoughtful critique of Phil Vischer’s recent viral video explaining systemic racism in America. I watched Vischer’s video earlier this week and found some of the information helpful, but other aspects of it not so helpful. I’ve not been able to write or comment on it because of various time constraints (church reopen, dissertation proposal work, etc.) I’ve also been reading and listening to a lot of voices regarding racial tensions in America. So I’ve been waiting on a pastor of similar stripes as me to reflect on Vischer’s video. Thanks Gabe.

Hughes’s Critique

Essentially, Gabe posits a few main premises contra Vischer:
1. The gospel - the power of God for salvation (Roman 1:16), where He demonstrates His fatherly love through giving His righteousness as a gift - alone has the power to change hearts such that true life change can happen. The outward effect is not only that societal ills can be corrected, but people can rise above any oppression of which they’re subject. As I’ve heard from several black voices this week, you don’t do people any favors by focusing them in on how oppressed they are. Instead, people are served better by having possibilities shown to them if they’ll commit to rise above the problems, believing that the God of heaven has lovingly equipped them with all that they need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), and refuse to let people drag them down. The gospel of God’s grace motivates to get your house in order and overcome issues, knowing that He cares for you.

2. The data Vischer shares is at points shortsighted - much of it only tells one side of the story. One example is his data sharing that black people moved from the South to the Northern cities for work, after which white people left said cities taking the jobs with them.  But I’ve read examples of black people moving to certain parts of town and essentially running whites out who wanted to be neighbors.* Granted, at that time whites could relocate much easier than blacks due to unjust redlining (which has now been illegal for 50 years). But my point is that this aspect of the story changes the narrative a little bit and makes it not so obvious what the “problem” is.

3. Much of the data simply addressed past ills with which most of us wouldn’t argue. But what exactly is the solution today? Vischer admitted that he doesn’t know, suggesting that a good start is for white Christians to simply care more than they do. Naming problems with lots in life (socioeconomic positions) but not naming solutions is dicey especially when Christians are told to humbly live in their lot (1 Thes. 4:11, 2 Thes. 3:12, 1 Tim. 2:1-2) and seek faithfulness where God has them. If one is faithful over their little, God will put them over more (cf. Mt. 25:23, Lk. 12:44).

The Issue

There isn’t a lot I can say that hasn’t been said already. I don’t want to contribute too much to the endless barrage of what seems like propaganda from each side. I’ll just add a couple of more points.

First, here’s the rub for me: I was raised in a midwestern Christian home and went to a Christian college in the urban South. But it wasn’t until I was in ministry that I began to read the Bible intently. Jesus changed my life - I was born again. I finally understood the gospel of repentance, faith, transformation of heart, and living for God’s glory. All that I had experienced prior might have prepared me for that, but it certainly wasn’t the source for that. The sovereign working of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8) is the source. The circles in which I ran before did not major in Gospel clarity, but could rather be characterized as driven by a concern for mercy ministry and state of the art church music. I don’t want to say it was legalism, because that might be unfair to those true believers within those circles. But there wasn’t any clarity about the fact that we’re not saved by the good things we do but rather by the good things Jesus has done (Rom. 5:19): Not by our righteousness, but by His. This Gospel wasn’t the plausibility structure. And if the Gospel is not the plausibility structure some form of legalism usually is. Judging by the seemingly well-intentioned capitulation to cultural narrative by those within these circles, it seems like the Gospel still isn’t. Even sadder, leaders in circles where the gospel was recently quite clearly the plausibility structure seem to have capitulated, undergoing what has been called “mission drift.”

The above paragraph is why many of us struggle with the prevailing narrative in news and media: We believe that the Lordship of Jesus is minimized when Christians treat policy as the healer of society’s ills. Voddie Baucham has recently said that social justice has roots in Marxism.  Whether or not all of those advocating social justice are Marxist (Black Lives Matter organization is explicitly Marxist), many of us are concerned with what at least seems like dressing worldly justice methods up in Christian-ethics clothes. Further, worldly attempts at justice never actually work. Controversial Christian writer Doug Wilson has argued that addressing the evil of slavery in an unbiblical way is why America still has racial tension today.** As Thomas Sowell often suggests, problems not addressed soundly lead to further problems. To be a Christian is to believe that Jesus alone can heal, even ethnic barriers. He has been doing exactly this for centuries (Eph. 2:19ff; cf. Ac. 13:1).

A Few Resources

Second, I would add a couple of more points to Gabe’s counter-data:
-Harvard professor Roland Fryer has led a comprehensive study suggesting that police are actually less likely to shoot a black suspect than a white one. (See page 39 for the conclusions of the highly technical study.)  See here for another study that suggests the same conclusion. Contrast that with the narrative that white cops are hunting blacks (George Floyd’s lawyer said that black deaths at the hands of police “feels like genocide.” Potential Biden running mate Val Demings has made similar comments.) Claims like this are at most false and at least counterproductive.

-A Chicago Tribune study has suggested it is no longer the case (if it ever was before; Larry Elder has said there are issues with past studies) that blacks are getting less calls for jobs.

-My favorite Christian rapper Shai Linne has said that Christians denying systemic racism today is akin to previous generations dismissing charges of racism by essentially saying “At least it’s better than it used to be.” But this skirts the issue: If systemic racism exists, the data should back it up quite clearly, and it doesn’t seem like it does. Instead, it seems to me that the data suggests residual effects of past racism. Watch Larry Elder and Ben Shapiro to see counterarguments to the notion of racism as a major problem in America today. In particular, Elder’s video from the 1:30 mark is devastating to the notion that systemic racism is obviously still the problem. Also see Elder’s twitter feed for fact after fact and graph after graph suggesting quite compellingly that the typical talking points of media are at least dishonest and at most not factual. Seriously, Larry Elder is a whirlwind of data. I can’t recommend enough watching his video linked above.

Is the Gospel enough?

We want the Gospel preached because it has changed our lives and it always delivers on what it promises. People come to God through His Gospel promises (2 Pet. 1:3), and their Father teaches them to live new lives (Tit. 2:11-14) characterized as “adorning the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:10). People can change their lives even if they’re still effected by societal ills from past generations. There are certainly injustices in our day. But we’re suggesting that this world will always have injustice (for only will the new heavens and the new earth have true righteousness, 2 Pet. 3:13). People who follow Jesus in their lots in life not only have the promise of His blessing as they walk in His wisdom (see all of Proverbs), but they can learn to have contentment in the here and now (Phil 4:10-13). This promise is minimized when Christians follow the world’s solutions to its problems. The reason I oppose critical race theory, intersectionality, and any other thought school is not because I don’t see injustices. It is because these devices are man-made while the Gospel is divine (2 Cor. 10:3-4), and the reporting of said injustices are not only dishonest, but are proposing solutions that will just create more injustices. Only Jesus saves through true repentance, and only He can give you the dignity and the joy which you long for.

I’ll admit with Vischer that these issues are very complex and it is hard for any of us to have the final word. But we think that God does. And faith in Him and His Son is to be crucified to the world and the world to you. The twist is that it is at this point that the believer is empowered to live in the world even with all of its darkness. That’s why we set our hope fully on Jesus (1 Peter 1:13.) He won’t disappoint us, but will lead us gloriously into His Kingdom. That is our true home.

——
*See Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of AW Tozer, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008, 147-150. There Dorsett relays the story of recently migrated black residents moving into the region of Chicago where AW Tozer pastored and, in no uncertain terms, asking Tozer and his mostly white congregation, along with other white residents of the region, to leave the area. Because of redlining, it was indeed easier for whites to move, while blacks were really locked into certain areas. That is significant. But the point is that the history is not simple, but complex, as sometimes people respond to sin (racism) with sin (pressuring friendly people to leave an area.)
**Doug Wilson, Black and Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America, Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 49-50.

Friday, May 29, 2020

On Death, "Common Sense", and Jesus

Former NBA player Stephen Jackson spoke today at a rally for slain Minneapolis man George Floyd. Apparently a childhood friend of Floyd’s, Jackson spoke passionately about the injustice of his friend’s murder at the hands of police. Jackson’s words were moving, especially viewed from the perspective of a childhood fan of Jacksons (go pacers). 

The Problem of "Common Sense" 

His last comment was interesting. He stated that common sense is not common, because how can people watch the same videos of Floyd’s choking and yet come to different conclusions? His point echoes something I’ve been saying a lot to people recently. COVID-19 has prompted a lot of conversations where I’ll hear people saying that in order to go out in public safely (that is, without spreading germs), people just need to “practice common sense.”  But every time I hear this statement, it puts me in an awkward position. Here’s why: I don’t believe that common sense is actually a thing, and I stand by that. Common sense assumes everyone has the same mental grid through which they view and think about life, morals, ethics, etc. But if this so-called “sense” is so common, why is American society so totally divided between different worldviews? More to Jackson’s point, why do so many people disagree with one another on what happened in the videos? I think most look at it and call it murder, but there are some who say, “We need more information,” others who say, “What did Floyd do to prompt the cop’s behavior,” and probably more who say, “I just feel differently about this than you do.” But the response to the video should be a response of hurt for the man whom, regardless of what he was doing prior to arrest, the cops were sworn in to protect. Instead of protecting him, he was slain. We should all have the same response. But our varying life experiences and ways of processing, among other factors, prompt us to respond to it differently. Why is this? 

It is because, while we are made in God’s image and therefore care deeply about justice and want to see life flourish, we are a fallen people who have minds darkened by the sin within us as well as the effects of sin around us. We are not neutral, nor are we objective. We are therefore incapable in and of ourselves to healthily process stories like this, and if we have passions that chafe at such stories (whether because of experiences or disposition), the response might be even more off balance. 

Right Thoughts and Actions in Jesus 

This is why I’m a Christian. I believe that only the resurrected One can, through His Spirit, lead us to find balance between our quad needs to a) grieve the loss of life, b) work to correct injustices in a fallen world, c) consider how best to sympathize with the hurting, and d) maintain a clear head about what are the real issues. Biblically, the real issue, as always, is this: People and their relationship with God, which then directly effects how they treat others (cf. 1 John 4:20, 5:2-3). Murder is within each of us (Prov. 1:16, Rom. 3:15), and Jesus became the murdered One so that He’d then become the resurrected One who is finally the saving One. Rising, He then gave His Spirit (Ac. 2:33) so that His followers could think and behave truly, substantially, and lovingly, to God’s glory and the advancement of His gracious Kingdom.

But the only way to think and behave in such a way is to own up to our part in the mess, stop casting judgments on others who are struggling to process this too, and do the tough double duty of a) praying on our world’s behalf, and b) applying the Lord’s life-giving truth to a world that is trying to destroy itself again. 

Apart from Jesus, truth is relative to each person with their unique experience and disposition; hence, Jackson’s and my related statements. But in Jesus, truth is a Person (Eph. 4:21), which means it can be known, applied, and quantified albeit however imperfectly it will be in our fallen hands. Still, as I’ve said a billion times before and will say a billion times more, our only hope is starting with Jesus, the risen One who is there to help us if we'll come and learn from him.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Michael Jordan and the Judgment of Others

Recently I’ve been watching ESPN Films’s The Last Dance, which is essentially a history of Michael Jordan’s career as the best basketball player of all time. There is more going on in the documentary (“Last Dance” refers to the Bulls’ final championship run in 1997-98), but it is truly all about Michael Jordan. Anyone who knows me well knows why I would love this documentary – not because I love Michael Jordan but because the non-pastoral/theological part of my mind lives and breathes basketball. It always has, and I bet it always will.

What Jordan Said

Before the documentary aired, Jordan is on record as having said that people won’t like him as much afterward. Speculations arose over whether or not the culprit to changed opinions would be his hypercompetitiveness, his well-chronicled gambling practices, or perhaps mean-spiritedness toward his teammates and Bulls management. All of these topics feature prominently in the doc.

To some peoples’ surprise (not all peoples’, and certainly not mine), the main reason seems to be political, and it came out in episode 5. In a 1990 North Carolina Senate race, a black democrat named Harvey Gannt opposed a longstanding white republican named Jesse Helms, who had long been regarded as a racist. Jordan, though living in Chicago at the time, is from North Carolina, and he was pressed to make an endorsement of Gannt. Keep in mind that Jordan is almost at the very height of his powers in 1990. Instead of making an endorsement, he said infamously, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” 

People who were paying attention back then remember this well, but I would imagine a significant amount of those watching the documentary were unaware until the other night.* Jordan appeared politically disinterested, and his disinterest wasn’t received well by many progressives and members of Black America. Finally, Gannt lost to Helms, leaving people to wonder if Jordan’s endorsement would have secured former’s victory. 

In the doc, Jordan said he made the sneakers statement in jest. But he also said in a roundabout way that he has never wanted to be too participatory in politics. One can begin to see why he might think that people will not look too kindly on him after the documentary airing in this political climate. 

Media Response 

While the response to Jordan’s statements are far from monolithic, my listening to sports talk and podcasts has suggested a similar conversation structure: 

-Host: How should we feel about Jordan's disinterest? Should Michael Jordan’s legacy be tarnished because of his lack of activism? 

-Responders: Maybe; but truly, no one is a perfect person, and his play is so iconic for sports and cultural that we should let it slide.** 

It seems that most recognize that his lack of political engagement is a bad look. But most are also arguing that Jordan is such an iconic sports and culture figure that it is hard to fault him especially when he’s done so much for the black community. 

The Day's Inconsistencies

I want to approach this from two angles: 
First, it is always interesting to me to hear people talk about the concept of “goodness” in people, ie. “I try to be a good person,” or, “You are not a good person.” Where does the concept of goodness come from in the first place? If a person is absolutely good, they’re perfect. But even one of the podcasters said that no one is perfect, and surely all people agree. I wonder why (though I have my speculations) people never ask the question, “Why do we care so much about what is morally right, and yet we just accept that none of us meets the standard perfectly?” Moral righteousness as a concern existing paradoxically alongside our general inability to meet it is an accepted norm, but relatively few question why it is so. You can probably see where I’m going with this – Christianity alone answers the “why.” 

But from a second angle, one must remember exactly what post-Christendom (our current cultural moment) is. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested that the post-Christian West has kept the good things that Christianity gave the world but has cut them off from the transcendent God who gave foundation for them. To give two examples: 
1. Before Christianity the individual didn’t matter near as much as the tribe or society; with Christianity came the dignity of the individual, so that all people should be respected. 

2. Before Christianity, the gods ruled, such that humans are fated, and their choices thus are unimportant; with Christianity, since humans have dignity, what humans do with their time and resources matter.*#

In a post-Christian time like ours, activism is considered paramount especially of those who are famous. But Taylor would suggest that the late modern mind has kept activism but cut it off from the God who gives it its foundation. The upshot is that people will talk about others’ moral responsibilities, instead of considering why the speaker thinks the others have those responsibilities. 

True Foundations

My point is this: Why does the world judge that Michael Jordan has to do anything politically, unless the world is willing to provide the ideological foundation for why? It won’t do to just say, “Because that’s the way it is,” or, “Because everyone knows it,” because apparently there isn’t consensus, and even Jordan himself disagrees! (He said in one of my favorite quotes in the documentary that maybe people shouldn't be looking to him as a role model.)  So a person might concede, “Okay, maybe these are just things that I think people should do, but I can’t fault someone for not doing so. No one is perfect.” But this leads us back to the original question: Why do we care so much about goodness and it’s mature form, perfection, when no one is? 

This is where true Christianity comes in. It says that no one is good (Mk. 10:18) and that no one in their own power does good (Rom. 3:12). At the Fall, something happened to humanity to ruin it and bring it into a lower state of “righteousness” than its original state. Therefore, unrighteousness touches everything about us. That’s why, if you’re honest, you’re a walking inconsistency, just like everyone else you judge (Mt. 7:1, Jn. 7:24).  Even Christians call Jesus “Lord, Lord,” but don’t obey him (Lk. 6:46; notice Jesus says this shortly after telling his followers to be careful not to judge others, 6:37.) 

But if you look at Jesus as the Gospels present him, one thing is clear about him. He’s perfect. There is never a mistake, never an imbalance, never a fault. I once heard Tim Keller preach that because of the rules of philosophy, a preacher could never present a watertight argument for why one should embrace Jesus, because people will always poke holes in an argument. But the preacher can indeed present a watertight Person, and it is Jesus Himself. If you look in the Gospels, He is utterly watertight. And Christianity, in the simplest terms, is knowing Him (John 17:3, Philippians 3:8-10.)

The Perfect Man

If Jesus is perfect, then that fact demands your attention. As one old preacher said, we are constantly pointing fingers at others expecting perfection but never noticing that as we point, our other three fingers are pointing right back at us! That is parabolic of the fact that our charges of inconsistency in others will always be at best just a step ahead of counter-charges back against us.  Michael Jordan, though almost perfect on the basketball court, isn’t perfect in real life, and no one should expect him to be, unless they’re willing to consider where they got the standard in the first place. 

The only way one can begin to consistently discuss peoples’ moral obligations is by starting with Jesus, the perfect Human. Otherwise, we will invariably be hypocrites ourselves who break the standard which we impose on others. Let me be clear: to be a Christian is not to be morally consistent or upright (although Christians are to pursue perfection, Mt. 5:45). Christianity is to know Jesus Christ, the God-man, who is perfect. And once you know him, athletes, politicians, actors/actresses, and any other public figure can be known in their proper light: Mere humans. Maybe humans endowed with great gifts and talents, but humans. So we can enjoy their gifts but can't expect their perfection. 

Jordan brought the people of Chicago six championship rings, but he could never die for their sins and bring them to God. Jesus could, and Jesus did.  

*It should be noted that Jordan did make a financial contribution to Gannt’s campaign.
**For example, the first part of that response was Kevin O’Conner’s response on The Ringer NBA Show, and the last is essentially Stephen A Smith’s response on ESPN’s First Take.
*# Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 278; quoted in Tim Keller, Preaching, 128-29.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

What Might God Be Doing in All of This?

In lieu of writing a full-length blog post, I'm encouraging my few readers to simply watch the video I made. I've been making mid-week videos to send to my church family via email (by way of our Youtube page). These videos supplement the Sunday videos, which include a Sunday school lesson and a sermon. 

The outline of my little video talk is as follows (this way, you can decide whether or not the video is worth your time!):

Intro - Everyone is a theologian during this global crisis, speaking for God
What does God say about this? 
   -Job 2:10 - both good and bad from God's hand
   -Lamentations 3:31-33, 37-38 - he afflicts, but not for long
   -Amos 3:6 - disaster hits a city at his decree (also Isaiah 45:7)
   -Ecclesiastes 7:14 - God has created day of peace AND the day of adversity 
   -Matthew 10:29 - even insignificant details happen before God's eye
   -Ephesians 1:11 - He works all things according to the counsel of His will

-All that happens falls under two categories: God's actions (what he actively does), and God's permissions (what he allows to happen, for good purposes)
   -like a farmer with imperfect soil, God allows things to happen in His fallen creation
   -like a carpenter with crooked tools and materials, God knows how to actively make straight what is beautiful

Three things God might be doing in the midst of this pandemonium:
1. Reorienting the church's priorities 
     -churches often are growth-driven, program-driven, or status-quo driven (or all of the above)
     -now, churches are being forced to work on relationships, adopt new means of communication, and evangelize (yes, evangelize - much gospel is happening online)
2. Confronting postmodern theorism with hard circumstances 
     -Post-m mind: No meaning in words or actions, only interpretation by the beholder. 
     -But this leads to the death of truth, and who can trust anything anymore? 
     -God brings calamity to test our foolishness masquerading as wisdom: "I'll give you problems you can't solve, since you think you're so smart." 
3. Making November's election appear smaller (read: less significant than media says and we believe)
     -politics matter, and someone will be president-elect in late November
     -but Christians follow King Jesus first, and have world's kingdoms turned to 5, with gospel turned to 9; perhaps this is all happening to keep that in our mind

Indeed, all happens to serve our growth and sanctification in Jesus (Rom. 8:28); closing with CS Lewis's "Palace" Parable: 

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself."

        -That'll preach.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Quiet Life

When I was growing up, I assumed, based on youth conference speakers and popular Christian songs that Christians are supposed to “live out loud.”  In other words, they’re supposed to make sure everyone knows that they’re a Christian.  The hope is that this will influence others enough to receive Christ, so that all can “have what we have.”

When I began to dig in to Scripture in my early 20s, I realized that, although Christians are to use opportunities afforded them to share the gospel (ie, Acts 5, 1 Peter 3:15), just as important is that Christians are marked by their humility and relative quietness.  Jesus made very clear that the ones to whom His Kingdom belongs are those who are “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3).  In other words, the kingdom belongs to those who are not the life of the party.  And Paul has two passages that seem to always stick out in my mind when I think about this:  

-“We urge you brothers … to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands … so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thes. 4:10-12). 

-We are to pray and be thankful for all people, “That we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

Surely someone might respond that the call to quietness merely met a cultural need of the time in each passage.  But why would Paul say it to the whole church at Thessalonica and to the young pastor Timothy in charge of the church in Ephesus?  More likely, Paul outlines what are to be the markers of the people of God: Living honestly, quietly, humbly, ready to share gospel hope, but not hammering people out of turn. 

Why? 

We live quietly because, to borrow from our Lord’s words to Pilate, we are citizens of a Kingdom that is “not of this world” (cf. Jn. 18:36).  In other words, the world in its present form is not our home, and we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).  In fact, the Lord involves us in the process of transforming the fallen creation into a redeemed one, as we live our lives following Him and reflecting His goodness to the world around us.  But make no mistake: Our minds are not set on earthly things, but are set toward the risen Jesus who will return and make all things new.  Until he returns, we wait on Him (see Phil. 3:20-21).

If you’ve ever spent time living in a foreign country (I have not, but I have many friends living in my country who are from another one), you know how out of place things feel.  Of course, you want to assimilate and be a part of society.  But it’s very difficult to ever feel “at home.”  This illustrates the Christian’s experience: They live in the fallen world but know they are made for a new creation where all things are set right.  And they long for it, looking for their Lord to return to make it so.  Until then, they wait patiently.  Because this isn’t their home, they don’t have to win every argument or every election, and they don’t need to be in power; they know who rules the world, and they live their lives humbly following him, waiting on (and praying for) both His will in this world, and His return to start the next one.  

Theology 

In other words, Christians are to be humble and quiet because theology has gripped them.  Christian doctrine is no longer a field of study which is fun to think about on Sundays.  Rather, it is reality; and all else is meant to be understood in light of it.  I watch basketball highlights all the time on a Youtube channel called “BallisLife.”  For the Christian, theology is life, and should be more and more so as the years go by.

It is doubtful if this is the common experience across the American church, whether talking about evangelicals or Catholics.  To be clear, I know no one’s heart or motives.  But it seems to be the case that theology is just an aspect of most believers’ lives.  But in Scripture, it is doctrine which saves us (1 Tim. 4:16), because we not only learn it but we wear it.  We’re told to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:10).  In other words, what you believe shapes what you do and how you act.  For example, if you think of God only as a judge watching for others to fail, you’ll do the same thing: You’ll judge all the time and quietly rejoice when others fail.  On the other hand, if you think of Him as a loving Father who is longsuffering and patient toward people, working to serve them and do them good, you’ll do the same.  Doctrine is more than just teaching – it is life.  

For the eighth grade Christian school Bible class I teach, like many teachers throughout the country, I’ve recently had to put my content online for the students. It is a long and cumbersome process. But because I’m fairly familiar with Google accounts, how it works with Youtube and Google Classroom, etc., I was able to figure it out rather quickly without having to write anything down. And when I go back in this afternoon to upload another video, I won’t be confused about it; I’ll remember how it works when I see it in front of me.  

That is in no way a testament to my superior intelligence (as anyone who knows me knows). Rather, my handle on Google is just natural based on all of my time online over the years. In other words, it has become intuitive. My point is that this is how Christians are supposed to be with doctrine: The language of Scripture becomes the language of their lives. Though Christians fight in their flesh against following God’s will (and we all do; Paul did, Rom. 7, and said we will, see Gal. 5:16ff.), they are gripped by what they know of God the Father and His Son.

Practically

I’ve been driving somewhere with this, and here we are: Being gripped by theology means we don’t participate in calling conspiracy what the world calls conspiracy, nor fear what the world fears (as in Is. 8:12).  We don’t use every opportunity afforded us (read: having a social media account) to share our opinion.  Rather, we are slow to speak (Jms. 1:19) because we know that “a babbling fool will come to ruin” (Prov. 10:8).  We are thankful for and submissive to authorities knowing that God has placed them over us (Rom. 13:1-7), and yet if we were to be given opportunity before rulers to bear witness of the true King and His righteousness, we would, like John the Baptist (Mk. 6:18), Paul (Ac. 22-23), Daniel (Dan. 2), etc.  Regardless, we pray for these leaders, even if we don’t agree with or like them (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2).  Remember, when Paul said to be submissive to rulers (Rom. 13), Nero, the murderer of Christians, was Emperor.  Paul apparently understood that there is no contradiction between the emperor being placed by God and the emperor being subject to God in the end for how he/she ruled while in power.  Meanwhile, we live submissively and humbly – thankful even.  Because we know the true King.

Perhaps a couple of more directly practical points will suffice for now: First, don’t judge people throughout all this COVID-19 craziness.  Some are panicking, while others are not.  Some are buying up supplies while others are not.  You can say whether or not something is wrong, like buying up all of the toilet paper (all empty where we live!). But don’t assume things about people.  Everyone has to figure out what is best for themselves and their family, weighing that up against what will help others.  I’m convinced, generally speaking, that people are trying to make this work the best they can.  And if supplies dry up, they’ll be restocked.  We’re going to be all right.  Jesus very plainly and very directly said this: Don’t judge (Mt. 7:1).  You struggle to be honest about your own heart (Ps. 19:12, Prov. 21:2); what makes you think you can clearly see someone else’s? 

Second, and finally, turn the news off for a little while.  Maybe that means the actual TV news, or maybe it means Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you use.  I don’t think social media is evil – in fact I use it.  But I’m convinced that in a day and age where we’re losing our ability to think, social media is being used by the devil to keep people confused and scared about what might be “coming.”  Too many recent conversations with people I love has impressed this proposition on me.  On the contrary, if you’re gripped by theology, you can hear these things and discern Biblically what is true, what is not, and what is none of your business.  Ask the Lord to help you – he will.

In the Shepherd’s Hand

If we know we belong to Jesus the shepherd (Jn. 10:11, Heb. 13:20), we know that times of trial are ordained to test us and drive us deeper into his heart.  In time, He’ll stand us back up.  And like He quietly and humbly submitted Himself to his Fathers will (the cross!), knowing that the Father had his absolute best interest in mine, we are to submit ourselves to whatever the Father has for us, fully convinced that He loves us and is, through this, caring for and shepherding us.  But we only will if doctrine speaks louder in our hearts than the news.  

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Francis Chan, the eucharist, and church history, part 2

Below is the second part of a two-part blog post engaging with Francis Chan's recent comments regarding the Eucharist, where he clearly supports a Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord's Supper.  I do not intend to stir up arguments on social media.  In fact, if you disagree and say so, I'll just now say thanks for your thoughts and for reading through my poor writing!  But I will not argue back.  Social media debate is too vacuous to fit into my (and I would assume most peoples) schedule.  That said, I do have some thoughts for you to consider if you want to and have time to read them.  

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I listed Chan's main supporting arguments for his position in the first post.  But since you may or may not have read that, let me state the three I will be engaging with in this post:


            3. According to Acts 2:42 the early believers devoted themselves to the breaking of bread the same as the Apostle’s teaching, so it is right to prioritize the Lord’s Supper over other elements of corporate worship.
            4. Pre-Reformation, communion elements weren’t thought of as symbolic; that came during the Reformation.
            5. Globally, Christians gather for communion, not for preaching.  (Granted, Chan didn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to be implied by his mentioning his Indian pastor friend.)

Is it Biblical to elevate Communion to central status in worship? 

3. Yes the earliest church devoted itself to the breaking of bread alongside of the apostles’ teaching, fellowship together, and prayer  (Ac. 2:42).  But doesn’t that suggest that the teaching of the Word takes at least some level of priority?  That may explain why it is that in Acts 6, the apostles take a step back from serving tables in order to give themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word, NOT to administering communion.  You may say, “They didn't need to focus on communion, because it is simple and doesn’t require study.”  Yes, exactly.  Preaching/teaching is not simple; thus, it requires time to prepare.  

Further, why is that Paul only explicitly references the Lord’s Supper ONCE in his letters (1 Cor 11:23-28)?  It could be said, again, that this is because the Lord’s Supper was simple and understood in its importance, and the Word wasn’t.  Still, if the Lord’s Supper is to be at the center of church life, why doesn’t Paul mention it in the Pastoral Epistles once?  Instead, his emphasis in every pastoral epistle is on right preaching and doctrine.  Read 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus (particularly 1 Tim 4, 2 Tim 2-4, and Tit 1) if you want proof.  Note that in every single epistle, attention is given to correcting error in what is being taught and making sure the teaching is faithful.  How could this be the case if preaching and teaching isn’t the priority? 

This also shows why preachers give time to preparation – so they aren’t in error.  One might wish that Arius and Pelagius would have spent more time studying and less time talking; perhaps they would have seen their errors and repented.  Maybe not.  Billy Graham, the great evangelist of the 20th century, famously said toward the end of his life that he wishes he would have studied more and preached less. 

The Reformation didn’t fix the church.  It pointed out errors that had taken the church off the path for a long time.  But let’s not act like it ruined the church.  The church had error before, and it has errors now.  Thus, one of the great mottos of the Reformation is Semper Reformanda: Always reforming.  Because we need to be always growing, maturing, and moving into more and more Biblical fidelity.

Was the Ancient and Medieval church entirely literalistic in its understanding of Communion?

4. As mentioned earlier, I’m not so sure that pre-Reformation, communion elements were never thought of as symbolic.  Earlier I mentioned the conflict between Ratramnus and Radbertus, which gave way to the official Catholic position.  Again it was struggle that gave way to the official position.  This is probably why later Protestants like Thomas Cranmer cited Ratramnus as a source for a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper (see the quote on the bottom of his Wikipedia page).  But also consider Augustine, who stated in no uncertain terms that it is a “servile infirmity” to take the signs of “the sacrament of Baptism and the celebration of the Body and Blood of the Lord” for “the thing that they signify.”^^*  In other words, at least to some degree, Augustine took these things as symbolic.  Later, Augustine refers to the Lord’s Supper as, “a memorial of the fact that His flesh was crucified and wounded for us.”^**  I am not suggesting that Augustine definitely held a symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper – merely that some of his writing suggests that he did, so maybe it is not as simple as it’s stated often to be.

Regardless, let’s for the sake of argument assume that every pre-Reformation church figure held to a literalistic view of the Lord’s Supper.  Isn’t it possible that the church could at times fall into error, and need Scripture to correct it?  I’m included in this.  What error am I suggesting needs corrected?  The notion that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” he was saying, “Communion is my literal body.”  Instead, I’d suggest that you consider that the apostles were looking at his body when he said this.  Therefore, how could he not be saying the meal is symbolic of his body which sits before them?  He was pointing to was the Passover meal that had always been thought of as a symbolic representative of the Passover lamb, blood, and bread, and here He was, taking it and saying, “You are to now consider me as your Passover Lamb when you partake of this.  Remember me when you take this.”  And doesn’t this mean the elements symbolize him, just like it had done for the Passover?  Hence Paul’s statement that, “Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).  Jesus took the Passover meal and told the disciples that it points to him.  Now when they take it, they are to keep this in mind.

John 6 will not do as a proof that the Lord’s Supper is literally Jesus’ body.  Right before saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life (6:53), in almost the same breath, he said that whoever believes in him has life (6:47).  Well, Jesus, which one is it that gives us life?  The Eucharist or believing in you?  I believe that his answer is this: “Who said anything about the Eucharist?  Eating my flesh and drinking my blood IS believing in me.  To believe in me is to receive me into your heart, like eating food; and when you receive me, you have life.” This sounds a lot like what He’d said in the previous chapter: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24).
This is why the typically accepted Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper isn’t that it is a bare symbol (as many have suggested).  Rather, it is that the risen Christ who is in heaven on our behalf brings us up to himself during the Lord’s Supper, so that we enjoy His presence spiritually.*^  It is not a bare symbol, but it is also not a real sacrifice.  Instead, it is a spiritual blessing, enjoyed by us who are spiritual (1 Cor. 2:15).  

Does American evangelicalism overvalue preaching, while the global church values the Lord’s Supper? 

5. I’m blessed by Chan’s mentioning his Indian friend who says that he and his fellow Christians love to gather for communion, not necessarily preaching.  I’m glad they treasure communion like they do.  But I could easily counter with the fact that I have a pastor friend in India who has a growing church which emphasizes the preaching of the Word above all else.  Apparently people in his church love preaching.  It is easy to research and find church traditions in Africa, China or anywhere else that place the emphasis on preaching.

I say all of this because I’m a little afraid that Chan’s point will be taken by multitudes to mean that everywhere else, Christians rightly value Lord’s Supper, while here in America we value preaching, and wrongly so.  That is not my understanding in studying global Christianity.  I am far from an expert.  But I know that preaching is highly valued elsewhere. 

That said, I agree that preaching can become an overemphasis, to the point that people will wrongly only go to a church if there is a “dynamic” speaker.  Hence, my prep-time as a pastor is less and less as the days go by, not because I know what I’m doing better now (though I hope to be growing), but because I want more time for shepherding, evangelism, writing, and other tasks.  I don’t see Paul spending hours and hours preparing to preach.  But not everyone is gifted like Paul, and some need extra time to prepare.  Further, Paul received a lot of criticism for the fact that he wasn’t a particularly eloquent preacher (see 2 Cor 10:10, 11:6).  But the rest of his ministry, and the power of the Spirit on him, made up for it.  For the rest of us, we try hard to preach and teach well, because we’re not Paul.  And God has called us to fulfill our ministries (2 Tim 4:5).

Conclusion

Again, I’ve been a Chan fan for a long time, and still am.  But his narrative of the unfolding of church history appears to be a little simplistic and shortsighted.  I’d caution you before you start to do the very thing it seems that he might be suggesting, that is, questioning everything.  Asking questions is good, and so is being critical (for how can we discern truth from error any other way?)  But let us not question everyone and everything else before we question ourselves too.  It may be that our being edifyingly critical depends on being critical of our own ways of thinking first.  I heard Tim Keller say once, “Let’s be skeptical, but let’s make sure we are skeptical of our skepticism, too.”  This way, if our brothers really do have specks in their eyes, we’ll see clearly to help them remove it.  

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^See John Piper, Contending For Our All, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 50.

^^Ibid, 41.

^*See Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: 3. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 74-80.

^^* Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 87.

^**Ibid, 93.

*^See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.31.