It’s probably not best practice for a preacher to say this publicly, but my sermon this weekend was pretty awful. I think it’s because I’ve psyched myself out thinking that my congregation isn’t interested in the esoteric, mystical theological nerdiness that I care about, so I got tangled up in knots trying to figure out how to craft a relevant message instead of listening to what God had given me to say, which is why it never came together. So first I wanted to say I’m sorry to anyone who was there. And I wanted to try to write now what I should have pulled together more coherently before I stood up in front of God’s people. What I wanted to say in my sermon is that the Bible is so much more than a reference manual or a rulebook; the reason it’s called “God-breathed” is because God wants to use it to make our existence inspired, which means to live in the freedom and delight of His breath.
This is a post where I’m raising a question that I flat-out don’t know the answer to. I watched a conversation yesterday between Derek Rishmawy who represents what I call the “Calvinist you can talk to” perspective and Stephanie Drury who is a “post-evangelical feminist.” Derek had written a post about the importance of not dissing King Solomon and the sacredness of scripture just because Mark Driscoll has misused Solomon’s words in Proverbs and the Song of Songs. Stephanie’s response was that for people who have been spiritually abused, some words in the Bible are permanently toxic as a result.
When I was in seminary, one of the things that impressed me about Augustine was the way that his language was haunted by the words of the psalms, in particular my favorite one, Psalm 42. Books 11-13 of his Confessions break into one of the most beautiful hermeneutical dances I have ever encountered. I wrote a term paper on his stream-of-conscious, allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1 in which the “dry land” which is eternal life has at its center the spring of living water which that deer in Psalm 42 was longing for. Throughout Augustine’s letters and other books, he keeps on returning to Psalm 42’s articulation of the infinite mystery in human nature: “Deep calls unto deep.” When you live inside the Biblical text like Augustine did, your relationship to its language is poetic and intuitive; it becomes how you narrate your journey of discipleship. This is very different than an ideological appropriation of the Bible in which it becomes an encyclopedia of potential proof-texts to be word-searched and scrutinized with a scalpel in order to develop a defensible argument. Continue reading
[This is a repost of an article I wrote for Ministry Matters on the two sides of God’s judgment and the way that Christ’s atonement converts us into loving God’s judgment.]
Many have misinterpreted this year’s battle between Rob Bell and the neo-Reformed bloggers who have dogged him for the claims that Bell makes in his book Love Wins. It’s actually not a debate about whether or not hell exists; there’s a deeper question whose answer shapes how we understand the nature of hell and what we are saved from by the cross: Why does God judge us? Continue reading
I want to hypothesize that the basis for the opposing perspectives in the “Rob Bell debate” that has swept through evangelical Christianity lies in different understandings of the doctrine of justification by faith. The concept of justification by faith is developed throughout the Pauline epistles. The following two passages seem to capture it the best:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
To put in a nutshell, justification by faith means that we cannot earn “peace with God” through our efforts. Whatever the “faith” is that saves us, it is the “gift of God” rather than “the result of works.” But how can you believe something without making an effort to believe it? It would seem that there’s inherently an effort involved in having faith at least if it means making a decision of some sort. The different resolutions to this puzzle are the three major strands of evangelical Christian thought.
1) SINCERE PERSONAL DECISION-ISM
This is a term I would coin to describe the understanding of faith typically offered by Baptists and other proponents of human free will who think that God dishes out heaven and hell in response to whether or not we have made a “sincere personal decision” to follow Jesus. We have faith if we have responded to Christ’s atonement by “deciding” to accept His salvation. The problem with this perspective is that the “personal decision” becomes the work that “earns” salvation, which violates the principle of justification by faith.
2) PREDESTINED FAITH INSTILLED BY GOD
The Calvinist resolution of the puzzle of justification by faith is to say that God predestines our ability to have faith. The reason our faith is not itself a work is because God plants it in those who have been predestined to have it. God decides to damn or bless us based upon a decision God made before the beginning of time. This way of describing God is a stumbling block for many people but it does resolve the problem of justification by faith.
3) LIBERATION FROM SELF-JUSTIFICATION
The Wesleyan approach to this problem is to say that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross has more to do with persuading us that God loves us than persuading God that He should forgive us for our sins. We are justified by faith because faith in God’s mercy is what liberates us from the prison of self-justification, a state in which we seek in vain to earn God’s approval through our works. So faith is not a work because we’re not proving anything to God with our faith; instead we’re liberated from thinking that we have something to prove to God. As a Wesleyan, I would say that self-justification itself is hell because it inherently creates an irreconcilable separation from God. The purpose of the cross’s atonement is to break us free from self-justification so that we can enter into God’s holy presence without fearing or hating God.
I don’t think that “sincere personal decision-ism” can avoid the heresy of works-righteousness. While Calvinism seems doctrinally orthodox, I worry that it creates an unnecessary stumbling block by making God look like He “unfairly” rewards or punishes us for His own behavior. Though I recognize that God’s mode of existence as Creator is not analogous to ours as creature, I don’t think most people including myself can get our heads around that reality. The other problem I have with both Calvinism and “sincere personal decision-ism” is that they aren’t guarded enough against the real dangers of self-righteousness/self-justification, which is the miserable state of being that I think Christ’s justification saves us from.
The purpose of all doctrine is discipleship. Jesus says that what matters is our fruit. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, all scripture’s purpose is for “training in righteousness.” Paul also tells Timothy in 2 Tim 2:23 to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies.” What matters about what we believe about salvation, heaven, hell, etc, is the impact it has on our Christian discipleship. Paul writes that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” If our theological debates serve the purpose of puffing ourselves up, then they are of Satan. If they serve the purpose of building the church and helping people get past their stumbling blocks, then they are fruitful.
This doesn’t mean that we jettison all controversial teaching so as to accommodate worldliness. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t be controversial just for the sake of feeling more hard-core in our beliefs than other believers. The time when it’s appropriate to be controversial is when discipleship would be compromised otherwise. That’s all for now.