Friday, June 7, 2019

A Look at Authorial Intent in the Bible

by Benjamin Morrison
A Look at Authorial Intent in the Bible

There’s a joke that Christians here in Ukraine like to tell. One day, a pastor goes to visit a class in the children’s ministry at his church. He’s trying to break the ice with the small children and decides to play a guessing game. “Kids, who can tell me what lives in the forest, has pointy ears, a big bushy tail and climbs trees?” The children are awkwardly silent, afraid to answer. Then finally one brave, young boy raises his hand. “Well, I know the right answer is ‘Jesus’, but it sure sounds a lot like a squirrel.”
I lead preaching labs with City to City Ukraine. Our goal is to help preachers craft Gospel-centered sermons. Sometimes I run into a question much like the joke above. “What if all I see in the passage is a ‘squirrel’?" What if that’s all the writer saw? If Christ isn’t mentioned in the passage, aren’t we twisting the meaning of Scripture if we read Him in? Aren’t we supposed to be directed by the author’s original intent?” The desire to avoid reading something into the text that’s not there is a good one. We should be on guard against it. But is that what a Christ-centered approach to Scripture is doing? Or, on the contrary, do we have a biblical mandate to search for Christ in passages that don’t directly mention Him?


Whenever we approach a passage of Scripture, we always come at it with a specific set of assumptions. None of us is free from our own tradition or culture. But hopefully, we are open to refining our assumptions based on what we find in Scripture. For example, Scripture itself tells us that it is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). So we approach Scripture with the understanding that it is not merely the words of men, but also the Word of God. New Testament scholar Vern Poythress writes, “Whether or not they were perfectly self-conscious about it, the human authors [of Scripture] intended that their words should be received as words of the Spirit.”1 That means Scripture’s meaning is not defined solely by the human author’s intent. In fact, that approach is actually ignoring their intent, because they intended us to understand their words as being words from God. To agree with the intent of the human authors, we must recognize their words as more than the product of those authors.


Every passage of Scripture has not one author, but two: the human author and the divine Author. So to understand the full meaning of a passage, we must ask not only what the human author’s original intent was, but also what God’s intent was. Some people argue that the intent of the human author and the divine Author must be identical. Walter Kaiser is one such scholar. He writes, “The Bible can have one and only one correct interpretation and that meaning must be determined by the human author's [intent].”2 Kaiser is trying to make sure that we don’t read our own ideas into the text. That’s a right and admirable goal. And though his approach might safeguard us against fanciful additions, it’s over-simplified. Scripture does not give us grounds to make a one-to-one correlation between human authorial intent and divine authorial intent.
First, there are biblical examples that contradict this over-simplification. There are passages where God has an intention that the human writer didn’t understand. One of the clearest examples is Daniel. Daniel is faithful to record the visions God gives him. But he explicitly states that he did not understand their meaning (Daniel 8:27;12:8-9, etc.). Sometimes Daniel gets an explanation, sometimes not. And even when there is an explanation, Daniel says he still doesn’t understand what God means in these words. These examples show without a doubt that God’s intention in Scripture sometimes goes beyond the human author’s intention.
It’s also worth considering how the New Testament authors use the Old Testament. For example, Matthew quotes a line out of Hosea 11, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15). Matthew goes on to tell us that this is actually fulfilled in Jesus being taken to Egypt and then returning after the death of Herod. In other words, the full meaning of this phrase is found in Christ. But in Hosea, there’s not even the slightest hint that this phrase has anything to do with Jesus. It’s actually used to describe how God historically brought Israel out of Egyptian slavery. And yet, Matthew tells us that this phrase was ultimately intended to point toward Christ. And we don’t get to argue, because Matthew is Scripture too. When Hosea wrote these words, it seems highly unlikely that he was thinking about Jesus. But the New Testament shows us that this Christ-centered meaning was part of the divine intention. The full meaning here, as in all Scripture, is found in its reference to Christ.
This brings up another interesting question: Where should we get our model of Bible interpretation? Ironically, sometimes those who would call us to faithful Bible interpretation ignore the New Testament’s own model of interpretation. Usually by “faithful interpretation” they mean a strictly grammatical-historical approach that acknowledges only the human author’s intent. But as we’ve seen, the New Testament authors approached Scripture with an understanding of the divine authorial intent that at times goes beyond the human author’s intent. They also understood the divine intent to be ultimately Christocentric. So if we really want to be faithful to the Bible, we must use the Bible’s own interpretive model. We cannot neglect the overarching, Christ-centered divine intent.


None of this is to say that the human authorial intent can or should be abandoned. On the contrary, God’s intended meaning cannot contradict the human authorial intent. If it could, this would be a mystical approach to Scripture where we just import our own preferred ideas and the human author’s words mean nothing. Let’s be clear: There is no genuine divine meaning which would contradict the human authorial intent. But that also doesn’t mean it stops with the human intent.
On the other hand, as we’ve seen, Scripture supports the idea of a divine meaning which the human author doesn’t always fully understand. In this sense, the term “grammatical-historical plus” used by professor E. Earle Ellis to describe the New Testament authors’ interpretive model is fitting. The fuller meaning of Scripture is just that: fuller than mere human intent, but never contradictory to it. God may intend more than the human author does, but never less and never at odds with the human author’s intent.
The authors of the New Testament use Old Testament Scripture, understanding that the goal of the divine intent in any passage is Christ Himself. The meaning of a passage cannot be detached from the overall revelation of Scripture which culminates in and centers on Christ Himself. He is the ultimate and final revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus points this out in his rebuke of the Pharisees, saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Christ is the eternal Word of God. He is the ultimate goal of the divine intent in revelation. As we study the Scriptures, both for ourselves and in preparing sermons for our churches, may our eyes be open to the fullness of God’s intent in pointing us to Christ in every passage.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Review: The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of Church

The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of Church The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of Church by Lesslie Newbigin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I greatly enjoyed this series of lectures by Newbigin later turned into a book (and one of his first) on the nature of the church. His primary foci are the unity of the church and its missionary nature. Newbigin makes strong arguments for the necessity of the unity of Christians as being an outgrowth of the Church's missionary task (a la Jn. 17). He takes a very interesting approach to the various emphases in differing Christian traditions, breaking things down into the Catholic (in which likely the Orthodox approach would also be implied), the classic Protestant, and the Pentecostal categories as emphasizing authoritative community, doctrinal teaching, and spiritual encounter respectively. While I cannot go as far with the ecumenical argument as Newbigin seems comfortable with going (one should not forget that he wrote these lectures in the 1950's), there is much that is positive to consider in his words. His argument that neglecting any one element (community, doctrine or Spirit) is devastating to the church and thus there is need to evaluate our own tradition (whatever it may be) in light of the others is on point.

At the root of this call to unity is the missionary nature of the Church. He quotes Brunner saying "The Church lives by mission as fire lives by burning." While Newbigin does give the caveat that the church does not exist only for mission, he sharply and rightly critiques the western church that too often (especially at that time) sees mission as merely a ministry department rather than vital to the nature of the church in the world. His thinking in this regard has been foundational for much of the more recent (and fortunate) turn towards the nature of the church as a missional community. While this was not my favorite book by Newbigin (that place would go to either "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" or "The Open Secret"—both better choices for an intro to Newbigin than this work), it is certainly packed full of much needed insights.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This final volume of Lewis's space trilogy was very different than the other two. To begin with, it was longer than both the first two combined. This is certainly connected with the fact that the pacing of the story was significantly slower than the first two volumes. In fact, it wasn't till around page 300 that some of the more extreme fantastic element began to show up. What it did have going for it was an incredibly insightful analysis of some fairly typical characters and what motivates them. This kind of raw and honest analysis that we would like to admit is not true of ourselves was present in the other books. However, here Lewis works it over. While I did very much enjoy the book (especially near the end), the pacing was a bit too slow for me. All the minute details of the life of a college don—something Lewis knew about intimately—lost their quirky attraction after the first 100 pages. That to say, it's hardly feasible to think of reading the first two books and not finishing out the trilogy, but this was my least favorite of all three (but still a pretty great book).

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Brief Review of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom

For a book whose conclusions I didn’t ultimately agree with, I deeply enjoyed this work. Desiring the Kingdom offers abundant grist for the mill, pulling from a rich variety of sources. With deep and insightful consideration and commentary on current cultural idols, it argues how a rich and well-formed ecclesiology might fight against them. It’s one of those books where I’ve filled ample margin space with my own replies or counterpoints to the arguments made. The best kind of book is the one that makes you think deeply, even if (and often because) you don’t agree with everything it says.

On the downside, Smith tends to be repetitive at times. This might be forgiven as his attempt to convey an approach to Christian worship which is foreign to too many Christians. He as much as states in the book that repetition is powerful, so maybe he intentionally employed his own theory in the writing? That said, despite the repetition, this is an academic book and the layman who is not a philosophy or theology student will likely find it somewhat hard to follow. He takes apart Enlightenment anthropology (justly so) and follows upon Charles Taylor’s anthropology closely. Smith has also written a somewhat more accessible version of this book for a broader audience called You Are What You Love, though some friends have told me it’s also not a simple read.

A Summary
To summarize briefly, Smith’s main ideas are the following:

1) We are primarily worshiping animals more than cognitive beings (i.e., “you are what you love”).
2) These desires are aimed at a particular end, though which end is not always explicit or clear even to us, the worshipers. The end/telos Smith refers to as the particular vision of the “kingdom” one desires, hence the title.
3) These desires are formed through habit, particularly physical, non-cognitive habits that impart an implicit vision of the “kingdom”. These habits are imposed on us not only in Christian worship, but in the culture around us. These Smith refers to as “cultural liturgies”.
4) Smith advocates a return to a more holistic ecclesiological practice (read high-liturgical) that he is sure will impart said vision for the Kingdom of God over time.

Deconstructing and Overcorrecting Descartes
Let me start with what I think are the important take aways. First, Christianity is more about what you love than what you think. Here Smith follows in the tradition of Augustine and takes Descartes to task. One might have the right Christian doctrinal ideas and still have a heart that loves something else: a functional idol. Smith does a fantastic job of presenting how the physical practices and habits of modern American culture form our desires without us much thinking about it. His criticism of the “military-entertainment complex” is particularly poignant, especially in the current climate of rising nationalism. It might have been my favorite part of the book. Smith’s proposal to think deeply about and become aware of the implicit visions of the “kingdom” (telos/highest good) presented to us in culture and adopt a more holistic anthropology is worth the price of the book.

That said, I think he oversells his case. While he is right to criticize an Enlightenment approach to Christianity that puts most of the emphasis on the head, I felt he went past the heart in a reactionary stance and put most of the emphasis on the body. To be sure, habits—including physical ones—do play a part in shaping desire that we probably don’t often think about. At the same time, Smith leaves one with the impression in his early arguments that the cognitive does not play much of a role in determining the desires of the heart.

The emphasis on considering desire/love as primary over the rational/cognitive for what determines worship is a valid point. Nevertheless, Smith does not make much of a case (certainly not from Scripture) that the physical plays as much of a role as he claims it does. In my opinion, he makes a needless bifurcation in pinpointing the practices of desire as physical, rather than considering the holistic nature of the human being. The biblical use of the term “heart” (kardia, which Smith also refers to as primary) is neither merely cognitive, nor merely primal/physical. It seems to me that Jonathan Edwards did a much more balanced job of parsing the balance of imagination/heart.

An Overcorrected Ecclesiology
This over-corrective anthropology becomes problematic when Smith arrives at its application for the church. I personally have nothing against a “high liturgical service”—at least one higher than most American Evangelical churches. However, I live in a land where Eastern Orthodoxy is the primary default religion. It’s highly liturgical—possibly in some ways even more so than Roman Catholicism. While Smith is busy touting the praises of the power of this sort of “holistic anthropology” for its power to form desire, I found myself wanting to ask, “Have you spent much time in a society with a high liturgical default church?” The reality is (as many in Europe will know) that man has an incredible ability to go through the motions and have it affect very, very little of his desire. At one point, relegated to a footnote (pg. 167), Smith candidly admits that he believes that “going through the motions” can be a virtue in itself—though not an ideal one. I’m happy to agree that there may be ideas implanted via such practices that can later come around to haunt the lapsed in a good way. Nevertheless, to say that these things are forming “desire” by themselves in a very meaningful way is a bit of a stretch.

I can imagine the argument that most people in historically high-liturgical societies today are too inconsistent to have the effect Smith is claiming they will have. I’d counter that, first, there are still some quite religious countries of this kind around—though it has not led to them being particularly receptive to the Gospel. In fact, one might argue that their high-liturgical performance often becomes a kind of barrier to their reception of deep, biblical truths. Second, Smith alludes to times in church history when liturgical practices were more regular in the life of the community, for example, Italy in the Middle Ages (again relegated to a footnote, pg. 211). My immediate thought was, “This was not a particularly healthy period in church history. Why would we want to go back to that?” Yes, iconoclasm has taken steroids in much of the American evangelical landscape (itself being an overreaction). And while Smith is right to criticize that mistake, surely another overreaction back to the original is not the solution.

The other odd point about his application of the over-corrected anthropology is that his book was, in practice, what he was railing against: a primarily cognitive discourse on the theological meaning of various elements of a traditional, high-liturgical service. In that, he seemed to betray his own hypothesis. The reality is that man is both cognitive and physical. Both are components of desire and work together to form what we might call the imagination. Again, Smith’s attempt at correction of the predominant cognitive-heavy model is valid and to be commended, but it is overdone.

Deconstructing Christian Colleges
There is a very short closing chapter on the implications of this anthropology for the “Christian liberal arts college”. Being a professor at just such a college (Calvin College), this is surely something Smith has much first-hand experience with. The reformation Smith calls for at such institutions looks like something of a mix between a monastery and a seminary—perhaps something L’Abri-esque, though longer-term and slightly more structured. And certainly it would be less transformationalist in leaning. Smith’s counterculture approach to ecclesiology comes off heavy at certain points where he lays into the more Kuyperian approach. Smith quotes Hauerwas heavily, so this is no great surprise (though for his being a professor at Calvin, perhaps it is surprising).

While there are obviously conclusions I disagree with, I did genuinely enjoy the book and found myself not being able to put it down at times for all the stimulating debate it produced in my thinking. This is also part one of a three part series on cultural liturgies, the final volume of which just came out in 2017. I’m looking forward to engaging further with Smith’s thought in the next two volumes. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Role of the Gospel in the Believer's Life

The Role of the Gospel in the Believer's Life
by Benjamin Morrison
After the sermon, a man came up to let me know he wasn’t happy with what he had heard. He didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but it was all over his furled brow and panicked expression. “So what did you think about the sermon?” I asked with a smile, “There was too much grace!” he said indignantly. It’s one of those complaints that you do your hardest not to laugh at because you actually take it as a compliment. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes in his commentary on Romans 6:
There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. This is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.1
Lloyd-Jones’ point is that this kind of criticism is actually a sign that we are preaching the Gospel rightly. That has been the case since the days of Paul the Apostle (see Romans 6). Reactions like this, however, are all too common among Christians. I believe that there are two things at play here. The first is a misunderstanding of the role of the Gospel in a believer’s life after conversion. The second is a misdirected, even if well intentioned, concern about the abuse of grace and permissiveness toward sin in the life of the believer, in other words, an unfounded fear of antinomianism.

The Role of the Gospel in the Believer’s Life

Many Christians seem to believe that the Gospel is really only for unbelievers. The Gospel is seen as the entryway into relationship with God, but then once it has served its purpose, it should be set aside for “more advanced things.” Sure, we might pull the Gospel from the shelf every now and again if we sin and feel the need for forgiveness, but that’s about it. For many Christians, this is the extent of the Gospel’s role after initial conversion. This couldn’t be further from the biblical picture of the role of the Gospel in the Christian’s life. The Gospel is not merely a push start for the Christian life; it is the foundation for the Christian life from beginning to end. The Gospel is just as vital for growth and sanctification as it is for initial justification. In other words, the Gospel is for believers just as much as it is for unbelievers.

Paul writes in Romans 1, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…” The problem is that we normally read this as if it said, “the gospel… is the power of God for justification.” But the term “salvation” in Scripture refers not only to the initial act of God in justifying us through faith in Christ. It also refers to our sanctification and ultimately our glorification together with Christ. Salvation covers all these aspects. That means the Gospel is also the power for sanctification, not merely for justification. It is the power to transform, not just the power to pardon. Unfortunately, we sometimes bifurcate the work of salvation and act as though justification is God’s work, and sanctification is ours. We act as though the Gospel has importance for the first, but means almost nothing for the second. But the Gospel is the power for the whole of salvation.

In some circles, we tend to look at the Gospel as the means for justification, and the Holy Spirit as the means for sanctification. This is a false division on two levels. First, while Christ is the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for us, it is only the Spirit who applies this work to our hearts in justifying and regenerating us (Titus 3:5). Second, we would do well to remember the statements of Christ about the Spirit’s work. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). The Spirit does indeed work sanctification in our lives, described (among other ways) as “the fruit of the Spirit.” However, the means He uses to produce that fruit is to continually point us to Christ, to the Gospel. It is not a contest between the Holy Spirit or the Gospel—which one will hold the title of being the source of the “power of God” for sanctification. Rather, the Spirit powerfully transforms us by pointing us ever more clearly to the Gospel.

Too Much Grace?

To return to the original complaint I mentioned, it brings up a valid question: Is there such a thing as too much grace? There are some who would say “yes”—like the man who approached me after the sermon. The argument goes that if we too strongly emphasize that our salvation is completely secure by grace, not dependent on anything we do but solely on what Jesus has done for us, that this will give people license to dive headlong into all kinds of sin.

We must admit that there are certainly those calling themselves Christians for whom grace is just an excuse to continue living for self and sin. But these are likely people who have never seen the costliness of grace, never been amazed by its beauty. Yes, God’s grace is free for us, but it comes to us at the cost of His only Son, flowing from His wounds. For the abuser of grace, it is just a philosophical concept broken off from the suffering of Christ. This person’s concept of grace is superficial at best. In other words, their problem is not too much grace, but too little.
For the abuser of grace, it is just a philosophical concept broken off from the suffering of Christ. This person’s concept of grace is superficial at best. In other words, their problem is not too much grace, but too little.
It would be overly simple to say that all such people in brazen sin are not actually Christians. There are surely some Christians who find their way to this miserable state. Is “too much grace” to blame? Likely the opposite. What happens is that the Christian doesn’t see the beauty and depths of the Gospel, does not delight in the richness of the grace provided through the cross. Instead, they labor under a latent fear and insecurity and so wear themselves out trying to sanctify themselves in the power of their own will. Some simply give up in despair after a time. Again, the problem is not that they need less grace, but more grace!

The moralist would argue that too much grace is dangerous. However, the only motive he offers as a replacement is fear. Yes, one can certainly scare a Christian into a life of busyness via threats of judgment. But while this might make a busy, religious person, it will never make a worshiper. That person’s heart might keep rules and stay busy out of fear, but it will not love and delight in God. It cannot. God is only a dark threat on the horizon of such a heart, rather than a faithful father. Any diminishing of grace creates in us the fear-based mentality of a slave. But Paul writes, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:15).

In stark contrast to the moralist’s argument, seeing the fullness and beauty of grace is the only thing that can cause us to enjoy Christ and happily pour out our lives for Him. Focusing on God’s abundant, unbridled goodness rather than our efforts is exactly what inspires love and fuels sanctification for the sake of the One who loves us so well. Any “change” without this motive is mere fleshly self-improvement. It is only the Gospel of grace, applied by the Spirit, which is the power of God unto sanctification. The puritan writer Thomas Chalmers summed it up well in his sermon The Expulsive Power of a New Affection:

The freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying is the Gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine [leading] to godliness… That very peculiarity which so many dread as the germ of antinomianism, is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against it… Never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness.

If we are living half-heartedly as Christians, toying with sin, not really growing in sanctification, the answer is not less grace, but more.

1 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6, pp. 8-9.
2 Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, p. 10, accessed on October 10, 2017.

This article was originally published on

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

"Can I Be Gay and Be a Christian?"

This is a question that a friend of mine asked me not long ago. That friend happens to be a Christian and struggles with same-sex attraction, so I knew this question was not asked out of a desire for theological debate, but from a place of deep personal turmoil. Back in the 90's during Bill Clinton's scandal with Monica Lewinski, in answer to a grand jury question about whether there "is no sex of any kind" between himself and Ms. Lewisnki as his legal counsel had stated, then-president Clinton famously answered, "That depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Of course, that was a cop-out, a lawyer's trick to hide his guilt. But regarding my friend's question, the answer really does depend on what your definition of "to be" is.

Here's the problem: western culture tells people that if they experience a sexual attraction towards the same sex that they "are gay" (or at least bi-sexual, queer, etc.). Modern society defines a person's identity based on their feelings—especially sexual feelings—however consistent or inconsistent those feelings may be. The sad part is that the Christian Church has pretty much swallowed this definition without thinking twice. We have taken up secular culture's belief that what we "feel" is the truest part of who we are. So my response to my friend who asked me this question was that, just because you experience same-sex attraction, that doesn't mean you "are gay". You have the wrong definition of "is".

The book of James states, "...each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (Jas. 1:14-15) We have bought into the current lie that to feel is to be, that our feelings define us. But do they? And if so, which feelings define us? After all, we feel many conflicting things throughout the day: from a desire to murder our jerk-of-a-boss (perhaps multiple times over) to a desire to sacrifice our own comfort and resources in order to help someone who is down on their luck. But how can these conflicting feelings simultaneously define who we are? Perhaps James has greater insight than we imagine when he relegates our feelings to simply this: a choice that is set before us, a temptation.

The story of Christ's life also tells us that He was tempted to abandon the Father's plan and short-cut His way to glory. In the desert when He had not eaten for forty days and Satan came tempting Him to turn stones to bread, surely He "felt an attraction" to that option. After all, He was not only the Son of God, but also 100% human and He was hungry! But that's the point of temptation—if there is no attraction, there is no temptation. And yet, temptation is also not the same thing as sin. This is clear from the life of the Savior who, though He was tempted in every way as we are, remained sinless. Let me draw the conclusion here as clearly as possible: your temptation does not define you.

Sadly, we Christians have shot ourselves in the foot by adopting the culture's terms and definitions. The Bible says that our identity is not defined by our various temptations, but by our position in Christ. We have been made children of God through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the truest thing about us. Will we experience temptations that contradict God's will for our lives? Many. But that does not define us; Christ does.

So in answer to my friend's original question, "Can you be gay and a Christian?", that depends on if you've bought into the culture's definitions or not. If we mean, "Can a person be born-again and experience regular temptation in the form of same-sex attraction?", the answer is, "yes!" In the exact same way, we can be born-again and experience regular temptation towards any number of sins. Homosexuality is not in some completely different category. All sin is sin. Any temptation is temptation. But none of it defines us as Christians. Neither our battles with it, nor even our failures.

Even asking the question in the way my friend did shows that the issue has been muddled for many of us by an unbiblical way of thinking. At first it would seem that the question is about whether we can struggle with a particular sin and still be saved—which, yes, we can and do and will until we see Christ face to face and our entire nature is transformed into His glorious image. But in reality, it is a question of identity, of definition. Can you "be" gay and "be" a Christian? No. That is to say, your primary identity can only be defined by one thing, and that is either by the Son of God who has loved you and made you His own or by the feelings of temptation that your flesh and the devil conspire to tell you is who you are. That's because they want you to doubt who the grace of God has made you—His child. Rooting our identity in sin (of whatever form) is incompatible with our identity in Christ. So for those Christians like my friend who who have felt condemned days without count, for those who have doubted if they can actually be saved because they deal with same-sex attraction—rejoice! It is your temptation, but it is not who you are! The truest thing about you is not the temptation you struggle with—that is just a fading shadow. Rather, your identity is who Jesus has made you by His grace: a child of God. In the words of Paul the Apostle, "So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Rom. 7:17) This is no cop-out. It is a vital recognition of who we are in Christ, regardless of the temptation we struggle with. Our truest self is the one that Jesus has created anew in His own image.


Monday, August 17, 2015

A Rant to the Christian Alarmist

(Warning: here follows an epic rant...)

I'm more than a little annoyed and vexed by Christians who cite passages like Mt. 24 and list instances of local, insignificant weather phenomena and minor military skirmishes (in the grand scheme of things) and draw the conclusion that this must be the fulfillment of said prophecies about "wars and rumors of war", about "earthquakes and pestilence", about the end of the world, etc.

Consider: The world is bigger than your particular region. Even if you are in a zone where there is some catastrophe, that doesn't mean the sky is falling all over the planet. Additionally, thanks to the advent of the information age and the instant, global availability to know of every little catastrophe, it may seem to you like these things are manifestly more frequent now, when in reality it's only that you now have the ability to know about every corner of the globe immediately whereas you didn't before.

Society (globally) is not "more godless than it ever has been". In fact, it is actually more Christian than it ever has been. Africa was virtually an unreached, pagan continent 150 years ago whereas today the sub-Saharan part is predominately Christian (no comment on the health or sincerity of said Christians, but nevertheless...) China has over 100 million Christians, the majority of which are more sincere than your average "Christian" in lands where Christianity has been the default religion until late, and the Chinese church continues to grow. The countries where the church is growing at the fastest rates are places like Iran, Afghanistan, and the like.

Consider: In the days of the early church, the emperors married their sisters/mothers and also castrated boys and married them as "wives". Prostitution was a duty, pedophilia was acceptable, and literally throwing unwanted babies on the trash heap to be eaten by dogs was standard practice. Are you sure society is "worse than at any point in history"? Consider that the rate of military deaths over the last 15 years is at an all time historical low relative to the world population. Are you sure that "there are more wars/violence than ever"? Lastly, consider the promise of Christ in which He declares "I will build my church and the gates of hell will NOT prevail against it."

Dear Christian, before spewing your next panicky, doomsday rant (on Facebook or anywhere else), consider that the Church is bigger than your particular country and that its history is bigger than your current generation. Consider that the Church has always gone through hardship and persecution and that if you are not in this situation currently, you are the exception, not the rule. Consider that, while modern western culture has plenty of problems, it is certainly not worse than the Roman empire in which the early Church lived and thrived. Consider that, as Tertullian wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," and that the death of lukewarm "Christendom" can only be a good thing. Consider these things and stop your alarmist panicking which makes us all look bad and fails to understand the history of the global Church or take seriously the promises of Christ. Thank you.

End rant.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Anxiety and the Peace of God

Jesus said a lot of challenging things in the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies, don't be angry, don't judge, don't lust. But right in the middle of Jesus' most famous discourse, He says what might be the most difficult command of the whole sermon, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt. 6:34) We are faced with the temptation to anxiety daily if not constantly. To be clear, Jesus is not saying that we should just drop out of school, live moment to moment and not think or plan for the future. That’s not spirituality; it's irresponsibility. Jesus Himself thought about the future, made plans, and yet he did not “worry”. What He's warning us against is something more sinister. 

What is anxiety?

The original word implies being pulled in different directions, being distracted and divided. And that’s exactly what anxiety does: it divides our attention, our thoughts, and our heart so that we are living neither fully in the present nor in the future. Anxiety sets you against yourself. It keeps you from being whole. Psychologists define it as “a negative emotional state of uncertainty because of real or potential future problems or challenges.” Again, this is not just thinking about the future, but allowing the uncertainty and potential difficulties of the future to distract and even paralyze you.

There are a number of reasons why we experience anxiety. Some of those are tied with survival and provision. Jesus prefaced His anti-anxiety call with those very examples: “
Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?” Tied closely with this is the anxiety we experience over our performance. This goes beyond mere physical provision. We tend to latch a sense of our own worth onto our accomplishments. It's not just about not starving but, “Am I successful? Have I proven myself capable? Have I 'made it'?” This kind of anxiety comes in both personal and professional flavors—relating to family as well as career. Some of our reasons for anxiety are more existential. We worry about if our life has meaning and what meaning it has. We worry about our own unavoidable, impending death. We deal with a sense of anxiety over being good enough, and feel guilt for not meeting up to our own standards, whatever they may be. Some of our anxiety is social. "Will he like me? Will she accept me? Will those people respect and love me? Will they judge me and exclude me?" It's more than likely that we've all dealt with some of these—and probably on a recurring basis.

In light of all the possible grounds for anxiety, Jesus’ words “do not worry about tomorrow” seem more like an impossible challenge than any real comfort. But it's worth asking why the Bible calls us not to worry. To begin with, God desires our blessing and anxiety is contradictory to that, dividing us and pulling us apart. But there is another reason. In reality, anxiety is an act of pride, and that in at least a couple ways. First, anxiety is always future-oriented. It's kind of a prophecy about the future—usually a false prophecy. The truth is we don’t actually know the future. When we allow ourselves to be consumed by worry, we are basically living in a future that we’ve created in our own minds. But that’s the problem: only God can make the future. And in that sense, our anxiety sets us up in the role of God. Not surprisingly, it turns out horribly. Secondly, 
anxiety is a result of pride because it occurs when we calculate our own resources and abilities to overcome potential problems and then somewhere deep down we realize: we are insufficient. It is the result of exhausted self-reliance.

Why we cannot free ourselves from anxiety

Anxiety is in itself an unpleasant experience, and so people are naturally uncomfortable staying in that state. We try to end our worry, to get free of it in one of two basic ways.

The first is to try to change the equation. If we worry about being successful enough, we set about working harder. If we worry about finding a mate, we set about making ourselves more attractive. Just consider how much advertising is geared toward this idea! If we worry about our abilities not being enough to meet a challenge, we seek to enhance those abilities. Of course, to some degree that’s okay. If you’re worried about failing your math test, you may just need to study harder and then you’ll be less worried. However, the problem is there are some things—many things actually—that we cannot change. Sometimes people will seek to shortcut the reality of our inability to change the equation. We try to convince ourselves that we’ve changed the equation when in reality we haven’t. We hurl self-aggrandizing embellishments at our anxiety like pebbles at an angry bear about to devour us. We tells ourselves pleasant lies about how we are successful and important—though this may not actually any basis in reality. And sooner or later there comes a time of crisis when these lies we tell ourselves begin to crumble. All of a sudden our fictitious ego-stroking runs into the jolting reality of our own insufficiency. It's at that point that people often turn to the second attempt to avoid anxiety.

We hide. We attempt to distract ourselves with other activities, with excessive amounts of entertainment, social interaction, food, drink, sleep, sex or drugs. In a word, we try to suffocate our anxiety under a pillow of amusement, but it tenaciously refuses to die. We are just putting off the inevitable and when our anxiety comes back, it’s all the more vicious for our attempts to kill it.

The problem is that both of these ways of “coping” with anxiety misunderstand what causes it in the first place. Both methods do not work because they have the same root as anxiety itself: self-reliance. Anxiety comes in the first place when we consider potential future problems and realizes that our current resources aren’t enough. But then our attempt to overcome the resultant anxiety are just further based on self-reliance! Either we try to squeeze more out of self, convincing ourselves that our resources are actually enough, or we simply run from the problems because we've realized that our resources are not enough.  In short, the whole problem of anxiety begins with being locked in the vicious cycle of self-reliance, and this is why we can never get free from it by continuing to look to ourselves. We need someone else to break the cycle.

What frees us from anxiety

The answer is that what frees us from worry is not a what but a Who. Peter says in his first epistle, "Cast your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you." (
1 Pet. 5:7) We are freed from anxiety not because we know something, but because we know Someone—Jesus. Our anxiety is based on not knowing the future and our inability to deal with it's challenges. But the reality is that we don’t need to know the future; we just need to know the One who holds the future. Freedom from anxiety is not about seeing the path of life in front of us, but about knowing the 
One who holds our hand as we walk on that path, even if we cannot see the next step forward.

In the midst of great suffering and before his own martyrdom, not knowing at the time if he’d be killed or not, the apostle Paul wrote, “I know whom I have believed and am confident that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” (2 Tim. 1:12) He didn’t say “I know what’s going to happen” or “I know I can handle it”. Rather, though the future was ominous and Paul knew that martyrdom was a challenge he didn’t have resources for, he still had confidence. He knew in Whom he had believed—in Christ—and he knew that Christ had the resources to make sure everything worked out in the end, in “that Day”. 

During his first imprisonment, Paul wrote the following in
Php. 4:6-7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Paul repeats the frequent Scriptural call not to live in anxiety, but rather to entrust our circumstances to God, to His resources. And here’s the promise Paul notes: peace which surpasses understanding. He does not promise peace that comes from understanding. Paul is not saying, “Just pray and God will explain everything.” He’s not saying, “God will show you the full plan for how He’s going to work it out.” No! If God did do that, we’d just trust our understanding. Instead, the peace God gives us is a peace which surpasses understanding, not based on information or calculation, but on trusting the heart of God. We walk by faith, not by sight.

The reason we can be freed from anxiety is not because we see the future, but because we see Jesus. He also stood on the brink of the unknown—on the edge of the grave. Yes, He had the promises of the Bible as we do, but as a man He had to trust His Father in the darkness. However unlike us, Christ was forsaken in the darkness. The Father let go of His hand on the cross so that He could take our hand and never let go. Christ was cut off from the resources of the Father so that we might always have access to His resources. And yet, the Father did not leave Him forever. He rose Him up in glory just as He had promised. Jesus went through the dark night of death, loss, shame, guilt, failure—and came out into the dawn of glory and eternal blessedness. The resurrection is proof that whatever we go through, as those who love God, really will work out for good. It's proof that He really does care for us. He has dealt with our death and guilt, He has given our life meaning, He has proven our worth in giving His life for ours, He has accepted us, does not judge us for our crimes but loves us with an everlasting love. And when we see Him, His heart, what He did for us on the cross—our anxiety melts away like frost before the relentless spring sun. We might not see what is down the road, we realize fully that our resources will not be enough, but we know that He cares for us, Has cared for us in giving Himself for us. That is the peace that surpasses understanding.

This article is based on an excerpt from my sermon "Anxiety and the Peace of God", available in Russian here. If you enjoyed this article and want to catch future posts, don't forget to subscribe to the blog.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Palm Sunday and False Worship

It was Sunday before the Passover. The crowds had come out from Jerusalem in throngs to worship Jesus as the promised Messiah. They laid their own clothes on the road before Him in a costly gesture of recognition. He rode upon a donkey just as the prophesies foretold. They cried out “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” But—Jesus wept. He cried over Jerusalem which stood before Him, mourning the fact that the city didn’t recognize Him, didn’t recognize this day. But here’s the strange part: the crowd worshiping Him, waiving palm branches—they had come out from Jerusalem. So what does Jesus mean that they didn’t recognize Him?

There’s a hint in the words the crowd declared. The phrase, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” is taken from Ps. 118. This was a Psalm that the Jews traditionally sang as they went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. This was a feast that pre-figured the coming Kingdom of God. It was a celebration of harvest and joy. They would also use palm branches in their worship on the Feast of Tabernacles. But that’s the problem: Jesus wasn’t coming to Jerusalem on the Feast of Tabernacles. He was coming for Passover, for the sacrifice of the Lamb.

Jesus wept because He knew the crowd didn’t recognize Him for who he was and what He really came for. He knew they didn’t worship Him for who He was, but rather for what they could get out of Him. They were more than happy to worship a Messiah who was going to establish God’s Kingdom and reign over Israel in peace and prosperity, kick out the occupying Romans and generally make life great. But that’s not exactly what happened. When Jesus didn’t come and set Himself up as the new Ruler over Israel, didn’t drive out the Roman, the crowd’s tune changed. In fact, we read that many in Jerusalem just days later joined in the cry before Pilate, “Crucify Him!” That only showed that most of them weren’t worshiping Jesus in the first place, only what they could get from Him.

Too often those who claim to worship Jesus have a similar approach. We are happy to worship as long as things are going smoothly, as long as we think that Jesus will give us what we want from Him. We look to Him as a means to our various ends of improvement, comfort, prosperity, etc. But what about when that doesn’t happen? What about when sickness is not met with healing but with death? What about when things go from bad to worse? What about when following Jesus means that our family turns away from us, that we lose a job, that we suffer? We’re all for the feast of joy and happy to worship Jesus when we think He’s come to give it to us right now. But what about when what’s actually coming is slaughter? The truth is, sometimes Jesus doesn’t give us what we hoped for or expected. When that’s the case, what is our reaction? Will our cries turn from, “Blessed is He…” to “Crucify Him!”? Do we get bitter, resentful, even hateful towards God? If so, we show that we weren’t really worshiping Jesus in the first place, only what He could give us. Like the consumeristic crowd outside of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, our worship is often false because we see Jesus as a means rather than the End in Himself. He is worthy of our worship not because of what He gives us, but because He has given us Himself.

This article is based on an excerpt from my sermon on Palm Sunday 2015, available in Russian here. If you enjoyed this article and want to catch future posts, don't forget to subscribe to the blog.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Negative Holiness

Holiness—this word has been twisted and misunderstood more than many in the biblical lexicon. Modern society finds the concept of “holiness” unsavory at best—something akin to lima beans: you realize it might theoretically be good for you, but it still triggers your gag reflex. If the term is used at all, it’s usually only as an accusation or an insult. “Oh, he's so holy!” is not generally a compliment on someone’s spiritual maturity, but rather intended as an indictment against an obnoxiously self-righteous person.  Sadly, when we hear the word “holiness", we’re more likely to picture the Pharisees than Jesus. Even as Christians, the word often carries for us a vague feeling of burden and drudgery. And to be honest, most of the reason holiness has gained this distasteful reputation is probably the fault of Christians. 

Beginning in the 19th century, the so-called “holiness movement” started gaining popularity among certain groups of believers. Of course, Christianity has always had an ascetic fringe. But in modern society, it is largely this movement that has led to the association of the word “holiness” with moral prudishness, extreme and extra-biblical rules, a fixation on “avoiding the world”, and making oneself “perfect”. It’s important to note a couple things about these “holiness clubs”. First, they were born out of a theological underpinning which believed that man could, through rigorous moral effort, actually attain a state of sinless perfection—“total sanctification”. The power of the Holy Spirit in our lives can and should make significant changes. But a movement that says we can attain a state of sinlessness in the present life essentially denies the total depravity of man and claims for its proponents a level of spirituality that event the Apostle Paul did not ascribe to himself. (Php. 3:12)

Second, these holiness societies often demanded complete abstinence from even moderate alcohol use, tobacco, dancing, playing cards, the theatre and other “worldly” forms of entertainment. Of course, the fact that the Bible knows no such prohibitions didn’t dissuade the “holiness” advocates from insisting on them. They, apparently, wanted to be holier than God Himself—an endeavor which never works out well. And as with the Pharisees of old, it has ultimately done more to push people away from God than bring them near. Despite their misguided methods, the earliest groups were generally motivated by a desire for a deeper experience of God. But the modern residue of this movement—which still lives on in quite a few fundamentalist and Evangelical groups—clings to the self-imposed prohibitions yet with little real thirst to experience God. In addition, it’s notable that the “sins” these groups focused on were usually the more visible and “carnal” sins, rather than things like pride, gossip and unforgiveness which the Bible condemns at least as much as the others.

This is all tragic because, though the Bible calls us to holiness, this sort of pharisaic prudishness is not at all what God invites us to. Scripture speaks of the “beauty of holiness” but too often Christians have turned it into something grotesque. The word “holiness” in Scripture literally means to be “separated” or “set apart”.  We tend to think of this as being separated from sin, from the world, from fleshly habits, etc.  There certainly is that aspect to true holiness.  But it would be better to understand the meaning of holiness as “dedication”.  Scripture presents the “separation” of holiness not as primarily separation from something, but separation to something—or to Someone in the case of the Christian.  Holiness as the Bible defines it is, first and foremost, being wholly given to God, and only separated from those things which would hinder our intimacy with Him. 

Many Christians see holiness like celibacy: primarily concerned with what you abstain from. No wonder holiness seems so unattractive to modern society! But the picture of biblical holiness is that of a marriage, not of celibacy. Yes, the holiness of a marriage does include vows to separate yourself, to “abstain” from all other lovers, but the point of marriage is not in abstaining from something. The purpose of marriage is to fully devote yourself to your spouse—to cleave to them exclusively, to delight in one another and be one with them.

For too many Christians, the focus of “holiness” is in giving things up, avoiding this, or not doing that. They define holiness in almost completely negative terms.  But that’s not the point of holiness. Biblical holiness is not about self-denial for its own sake.  Biblical holiness is about complete union with Christ, cleaving to Him. And only as a consequence of the primary purpose do we deny those things that hinder our closeness with Him.  Holiness is not about what you give up, it’s about what you gain: intimacy with Christ. 

Defining holiness as avoiding sin is like defining marriage as avoiding adultery. While a marriage cannot be healthy when either spouse is involved in adultery, the lack of adultery in a marriage is no guarantee of a good marriage. There are plenty of marriages that, while no adultery is present, are still cold and loveless. Fidelity is a necessary condition for a good marriage, but it is not sufficient by itself to ensure a good marriage. And just as a good marriage is more than avoiding adultery, true holiness is more than avoiding sin—never less, but definitely more. This is the mistake of the Christian who defines holiness as primarily what he avoids, rather than Whom he enjoys.

We need to learn to see holiness not so much as a state of behavior, but as a state of relationship. The truth is that some Christians are so interested in “holiness” that they care nothing for Jesus. That is, their “holiness” consists primarily in looking at themselves and making sure they are up to par, rather than looking at Christ and delighting in Him. All of their “holiness” amounts to little more than glorified navel-gazing. This is like the husband who is fixated on being a good husband. He wants so much to have a good marriage—if only his wife would get out of the way and quit messing it up! Of course, the truly good husband is the one who is not hung up on how good of a husband he is, but who is fixated on loving, serving and being one with his wife. Similarly, the truly holy Christian is the one who thinks very little about his achievements in holiness, but thinks a great deal about loving and enjoying Jesus.

Of course, there are things we must deny in pursuing intimacy with God.  That is part of holiness, just as forsaking old lovers is part of marriage.  Jesus said in Mk. 8:34, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”  There is an obvious element of self-denial in these words. But the end of the phrase is the point of everything that comes before it: to follow Jesus, to be with Him. We must realize that anytime the Lord calls us to “deny self”, it is not so He can deprive us of something, but so He can give us something so much better—Himself.  He asks us to let go of the stone in our hand only so He can fill it with bread. 

So let’s stop defining holiness primarily by what we give up and realize that the essence of true holiness is intimacy with Christ. If we have made the keeping of rules the measure of holiness—especially extra-biblical, self-imposed rules—let us repent of neglecting our Bridegroom. May we begin to define holiness not in terms of what we avoid, but of Whom we enjoy.

This article is based on an excerpt from my sermon on 1 Peter 1:13-16 “Holiness vs. Religion” available in Russian here. If you enjoyed this article and want to catch future posts, don't forget to subscribe to the blog.