A friend pointed me to Tim Challies’ recent interview with John MacArthur in which MacArthur doubled down on the claims made in his Strange Fire conference condemning the charismatic movement in Christianity. While I don’t have time to consider MacArthur’s scriptural arguments exhaustively, one of the passages he used to support his cessationist view that the Holy Spirit has stopped revealing things to people in the way that happened in Biblical times is Ephesians 2:20. I find his use of this passage providentially ironic and a good opportunity to illustrate how differently we read the Bible.
Growing up evangelical, I had drilled into me the dichotomy between “the law” and “grace.” We become broken record players, reminding ourselves and other people that we are saved by faith and not by following the rules. But then we often substitute ideological correctness (which is how we define “faith”) for following God’s rules as the “work” that saves us. I’m convinced that without a change in how we understand salvation, we cannot escape some form of works-righteousness. If salvation is what God does in response to an evaluation of something we do, say, or believe, then whatever we do, say, or believe is the “work” that justifies us. For salvation to be justification by faith, it must be our transformation into really believing that we have a generous God whose law is not supposed to be an onerous test of our fidelity but a gift for our benefit. That is the subject of my second sermon in the series Journey to Eternity: Continue reading
A basic principle of Christianity is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. What exactly this statement means has increasingly come under debate in our time. For most of the modern period, Protestantism has almost exclusively understood Jesus’ death on the cross as a punishment that pays a debt, or “penal substitution.” Added to this has been the assumption that the primary problem resolved by the cross is God’s anger about our sin. These are two separate issues. I believe that penal substitution has Biblical support, but it has been drastically over-weighted; I do not believe that a view of the cross as an appeasement of God’s anger is Biblically faithful. One way of exploring this phenomenon (imperfectly) is to look at all the references to Jesus’ blood in the New Testament to see what the Bible says that the blood actually does.
This weekend’s sermon talks about how Jesus’ cross turns ugliness into beauty by reconciling enemies (Ephesians 2:13-16, Romans 5:8-10). We become enemies because we fear, we blame, and we project things that happened to us onto other people. Jesus takes on our fears and blame and projections on His cross. When we realize that we have acted as Jesus’ enemies whom He has forgiven for not knowing what we were doing, then we can forgive those who have mistreated us without knowing what they were doing. Whether or not our enemies are reconciled to us, we can be reconciled to them through the cross.
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Our youth pastor invited me today to talk about atonement with our confirmation class. As you know, I am very passionate about offering a better explanation than the Four Spiritual Laws of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconcile us to God. I’m not very good at turning confirmation lessons into silly activities with cotton balls and papier mache. So what I offered them was pretty simple: a single sheet of paper with a brief description of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection at the top and then seven different concrete problems that Jesus’ atonement provides a solution for (realizing that’s not an exhaustive list). I gave them scripture passages to read and had them try to answer based on the scripture how Jesus’ atonement addressed the stated problem. Continue reading
I’ve been reading through Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in which he spends a whole lot of time arguing emphatically why unbaptized infants deserve to go to hell because of Adam’s sin. It seems like the damnation of babies was a huge sticking point for Pelagius and his followers and part of why they were inclined to say that the doctrine of original sin was ridiculous. The core of Augustine’s argument against Pelagius rests upon a literal interpretation of John’s two verses describing the salvation of the two sacraments — 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” and 6:53: “Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye shall have no life in you.” Though I don’t have time to trace the historical development of this literal attribution of salvation to sacramental observance, I cannot help but wonder if Augustine’s Biblical literalism and the magisterial inertia of the church in following his claims uncritically led to the formulaic view of the sacraments which created the atmosphere of “Pelagian” salvation by works that triggered the Reformation. I realize I’m being mischievous, but the irony is too delicious. Continue reading
What I learned from last night’s final presidential debate (which was the first one I watched) is that the way you “win” mostly has to do with how long you can talk without taking a breath or how willing you are to yell “Liar, liar, pants on fire” while the other guy is in the middle of what he’s saying. The fundamental thing Romney and Obama agreed on is the importance of projecting strength in US foreign policy. “Strength” seems to be defined as not apologizing for anything the US has done in the past and making sure that other nations understand that the US knows what’s best for them. I realize we live in a secular nation-state, but I am really bothered by how thoroughly un-Biblical that way of thinking is. Whether or not it’s effective foreign policy from a realpolitik perspective, the Bible calls us to integrity, not strength.
Is God’s goal for humanity communion or correctness? The way you answer that question will determine your understanding of atonement, orthodoxy, holiness, Biblical interpretation, and just about every other major issue within Christian thought. Does Jesus’ cross serves the purpose of imputing perfect correctness to imperfect people or creating peace and reconciliation between otherwise irreconcilable people? That is the distinction. For the purpose of this piece, I want to define correctness very specifically as a way of thinking about behavior and opinions in which there is one right answer and the goal is absolute uniformity. Righteousness is different from correctness; its absolute would be perfect love for God and neighbor which would not necessarily result in identical decisions being made in the same circumstances but a perfect disposition for making these decisions. I believe that a certain threshold of correctness is important for the sake of establishing communion between God’s people, but if correctness means chasing after an elusive goal of absolute ideological conformity, then it is a source of schism in the body of Christ and as such a heretical pursuit.
In contemporary Christian worship, a distinction is often made between worship that is “really worship” versus “just a performance.” For example, does the music invite authentic congregational participation or is it filled with guitar solos, pyrotechnics, and fog machines that make the service a concert that gives people goose bumps for cheap manufactured reasons? I want to look at a different contrast between worship and performance that I see at the heart of the gospel. I believe we were created to worship every moment of every day. The purpose of gathering to sing and pray and learn each weekend is merely to retune ourselves for a week of worship. The problem is that we misunderstand what worship means: we think it’s performing for God, putting on a show to prove to Him that we really believe in Him so that He won’t throw us in hell. But performance is actually the greatest obstacle to true worship, the definition of which is summarized in a single verse — Psalm 37:4: “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s not hard to learn how to worship; my three year old son knows perfectly how. The impossible challenge that Jesus died on the cross to make possible is unlearning performance. Continue reading
This past weekend, I preached on Ephesians 2:11-22. It’s one of my favorite passages because it talks about how Jesus tears down the walls between us. And at first glance it would seem like a great opportunity to talk about how important it is for the church to fight racism and take on all the “us vs. them” conflicts in our day that build walls between people. But there was a line that confronted me in the passage that I felt like I couldn’t just treat as a rhetorical flourish as I’d so often read it before. I needed to be able to explain it. Paul says, “You who were far have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” That line doesn’t make any sense unless you read it with some understanding of the central purpose of sacrifice in the community of the ancient Israelites. Only through the lens of sacrifice can we understand how the blood of Jesus can tear down the wall that had kept the Gentiles out of the Jewish temple. Continue reading