Archive for September, 2014

The whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is about Christ

September 29, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an excellent commentary on Jonah written by Phillip Cary. He said something in the second paragraph of the introduction that changed my life:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

“Like the whole Bible,” this Old Testament book is about Christ.

If, unlike me, you never attended a mainline Protestant seminary, you might miss how shocking these words are. But trust me, one would never hear this sentiment expressed at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. On the contrary, we mostly didn’t study something called the Old Testament; we studied the Hebrew Bible. To call it the Old Testament, after all, would imply a continuity with the New Testament that critical scholarship within the realm of mainline Protestantism denies at every turn.

While the Hebrew Bible happens to be included in our Christian Bibles, it doesn’t really belong to us Christians. At best, we’re overhearing someone else’s conversation. Therefore, the strange first-person plural pronouns (“let us create”) for God in Genesis 1 cannot be a Trinitarian reference. The “prophet like Moses” of Deuteronomy 18:15 cannot be Jesus. The “virgin who shall conceive and give birth to a son” of Isaiah 7:14 cannot be pointing to Christmas, irrespective of what it meant in its original context. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot say anything about Christ’s atoning death. (Worse, from a liberal mainline perspective, this chapter says the most about penal substitution, so it certainly can’t be referring to Jesus!)

Why would an ostensibly Christian seminary, much less one aligned with the United Methodist Church, fail to emphasize the continuity between Old and New Testaments in its core Old Testament classes? After all, this wasn’t an undergraduate Bible class at a secular public university, whose students come from a variety of religious backgrounds. We’re under no obligation to respect religious pluralism. Yet I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we were discouraged from thinking that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New.

Did the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Old Testament not foresee the coming of Christ? In which case, as this Christianity Today article implies, the Old Testament era was a mistake (Plan A) that God put right with the coming of Jesus (Plan B). What kind of doctrine of scripture would this imply? Where would this leave doctrines of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty?

It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

So I can sympathize with the average layperson who dreads hearing a sermon on the Old Testament for fear that it won’t be about Jesus. I’m guessing that in most mainline churches, that’s the case. (After all, their pastors went to places like Candler!)

But I hope that my parishioners know better. Every sermon I preach is about Jesus, in one way or another. I preach the gospel through every sermon. I preach Christ crucified in every sermon. And why not? I can’t improve on that message. And that message never gets old.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

Occasional doubt is a part of a healthy Christian faith

September 25, 2014

Not long ago, I had a parishioner who was suffering from a mysterious ailment that doctors didn’t quite know how to treat. Three times he had shown signs of improvement, was sent home, only to suffer a relapse and return to the hospital. It was frustrating and worrisome, to say the least.

I visited him several times during this two- or three-week period of his being in and out of the hospital. At the end of each visit, as is my custom, I held hands and prayed with him and any friends or family present.

Once, while I was preparing to pray, I had this internal dialogue with God: “Why am I bothering? You’re not going to do anything, no matter what I pray. Do you know how bad this is making you look? Do you  know how bad this makes me look?” (I’m vain and self-centered even in my prayers.) “This is why my atheist friends don’t believe in you. We pray and pray and pray and nothing happens.”

Yes, friends, yours truly has thoughts like these sometimes.

On another occasion, during a dark moment of self-doubt about my vocation, a friend of mine tried to cheer me up: “I admire you for all the sacrifices you’ve made. You gave up a successful career… money… prestige. Most people wouldn’t have the guts to do that.”

Immediately I thought—without saying out loud—”Yeah, I hope Christianity turns out to be true. Otherwise I’ve wasted my life!” I am “of all men most to be pitied,” as the Apostle rightly understood.

My point in sharing this is to say that I completely understand what Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, meant when he was asked recently if he ever doubts:

Yes I do. I mean there are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God?’, ‘Where is God? The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘This is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

The press in Britain had a field day with this, as if the archbishop were admitting something shocking. One headline read, “Archbishop of Canterbury doubts the existence of God.”

Oh, brother! Only someone who doesn’t practice the Christian faith could imagine that Christians never doubt.

As Archbishop Cranmer puts it:

If those who bring us the news and the majority of those who consume it had any idea what the Bible says, they would see that doubt is a continually recurring theme. The Psalms are full of it:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1,2)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1,2)

But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. (Psalm:88:13-15)

Great heroes from the pages of the Bible, including King David, Elijah, Job and ‘doubting’ Thomas had desperate moments of questioning God. John the Baptist had a major crisis of faith regarding Jesus’ divinity, despite having waited his adult life to baptise him as the Messiah. Even Jesus had his moment of turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So Justin Welby is in good company. He is doing little more than being frankly honest about his relationship with God. There are things he finds wonderful about his faith and others he finds frustrating and challenging. He is not trying to pretend to be something he isn’t and most Christians will find his words resonating with their own experiences.

Glenn Peoples also says it well in this post:

As it turns out, the story could have just as easily (although not as tantalisingly – or smoothly) been called “Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has some thoughts and feelings every now and then that most normal Christians have, nothing to see here.” But there is something to see here, and it’s this: Doubt is a normal part of a committed Christian faith. Not all the time, of course, but anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mature, thoughtful Christian or else they don’t want to admit it…

Doubt can exist for a variety of reasons (usually more emotional than strictly rational), and the denial of doubt is foolishness. A faith that has never been exposed to real doubt at all must surely be weaker (or I insist, at very least much less mature) than a faith that has come out the other side of episodes of long, dark doubt that relentlessly occupies the whole mind. I have no authority over the church, but if I did I would insist that a person is only considered eligible for ministry if they have experienced that sort of doubt. You’ll need that experience when a member of your church approaches you and tells you they’re having doubts and you don’t want to respond like the idiot who says “come now, where is your faith?” How will you know how to answer the question of how to come back from soul-crushing doubt and set your eyes on what you know to be true if you’ve never had to do it? Of course it would be a mistake to automatically respond to doubt as though it were a rationally compelling factor in itself, and so to give up belief, taking the path (at that moment) of least emotional resistance. But depicting the faith as a place where serious doubt simply doesn’t happen is madness.

Sermon 07-14-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 6: Samson”

September 23, 2014

superhero graphic

This sermon is about “Samsonitis,” our sinful tendency to take for granted the gifts that God has given us and believe that we’re mostly responsible for our success. Do you suffer from it? How can you prevent it?

Sermon Text: Judges 13:1-5, 24-25; 16:4-6, 15-31

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes. 

Chapters 13 through 16 of the Book of Judges, of which we’ve only read a small part this morning, tell the story of Samson, the last “judge” of Israel before Israel became a monarchy, ruled by a king. In this period before the monarchy, Israel’s king was supposed to be God. They were supposed to love and serve him, be faithful to him, submit to his authority and his commandments. Then they wouldn’t need a human king. But the Book of Judges tells the story of how badly that worked out for Israel.

The sad, tragic refrain of Judges, is the following: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Usually this evil consisted of idolatry, worshiping and serving the gods of other nations who lived alongside them in the Promised Land. God would punish them, usually by sending them a foreign army to conquer and oppress them. Then the people would repent and cry out to God. And God would raise up someone from among them who would be what the Bible calls a “Judge,” not someone in a black gown who presides over a court of law—but a mighty military leader capable of leading Israel in victory over their enemies. Read the rest of this entry »

Does Ruth have sex with Boaz on the threshing floor?

September 22, 2014
Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in a romantic comedy

Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in a romantic comedy

In an early draft of my sermon yesterday, I compared the Book of Ruth to a romantic comedy. It wasn’t my original thought: it came from John Goldingay. But true enough, the book does have the hallmarks of one: the meet-cute of chapter 2, the falling in love of chapter 3, the threat to the couple’s love in chapter 4, along with a happy ending.

Does it also have Hollywood’s obligatory pre-martital sex scene in Ruth 3?

Scholarly opinion on the question of whether the couple have sex on the threshing floor is mixed. It is, without question, an erotically charged scene. After all, Ruth’s mother-in-law tells her to bathe, put on make-up, wear her finest clothes, wait until Boaz has eaten and drunk (alcohol) and “his heart was merry,” and then “uncover his feet.” Then, when morning comes, Boaz acts to protect Ruth from scandal, sending her away “before one could recognize another.”

We know for sure that “uncovering one’s nakedness” is a biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse. This was likely Ham’s sin against his father, Noah, in Genesis 9:20-28—that he humiliated him by penetrating him anally—not merely that his son saw his father naked.

Doesn’t Noah’s curse make much more sense in this context?

We also know for sure that a man’s “foot” is often a biblical euphemism for genitalia.

Additionally, the scene in Ruth 3 likely alludes to Genesis 19, when Lot’s daughters ply their father with wine in order to become pregnant by him. While this may seem like a stretch to us contemporary readers, ancient Israelites would already have Genesis 19 in mind: Ruth was a Moabite, and Moabites are descendants of the incestuous union of Lot and his eldest daughter. The story is likely playing on the ancient stereotype that Moabite women are morally loose.

So does all this mean that Ruth and Boaz had premarital sex?

While I’m aware that many progressive Christians would have us believe that the Bible’s witness against sex outside of marriage isn’t as airtight as we uptight conservatives think, I say no—an emphatic no.

First, Ruth’s purpose in going to Boaz isn’t to sleep with him simply because she’s attracted to him, which would be the case in a romantic comedy, but to propose marriage to him. This is what she means when she says, “Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”

Second, if they did have sex that night, the act itself would be an act of consummation of marriage, not inconsequential premarital sex as our culture understands it today. Both Boaz and Ruth understood that the act itself implied marriage. As Goldingay writes in his For Everyone commentary, getting married in ancient Israel didn’t require the blessing of civil or ecclesial authorities. In which case, as many commentators point out, Ruth wasn’t making herself up and wearing her finest clothes in order to seduce Boaz, but to marry him.

Goldingay writes:

There are lots of ambiguities about the way the story is told that reflect the ambiguity in what Ruth was to do. Dressing yourself up the way Ruth does could mean making it look as if you are a bride on her wedding day, but it could mean trying to look seductive. Uncovering someone’s feet could mean what it says, but “uncovering someone’s nakedness” is a euphemism for having sex with them, and “feet” can be a euphemism for genitals. If a man wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a woman lying next to him, he could hardly be blamed for thinking she is offering herself to him, though he would be wise also to remember that accepting the offer might mean he will have a hard time avoiding marrying her. To put it another way, sleeping with an unattached woman might imply a marriage commitment. As far as we know, in Israel there is no such thing as a marriage service or a registrar of marriages. Such things belong in urbanized and mobile cultures. So even if Ruth is offering herself to Boaz sexually, she might seem by that act to be proposing and not merely propositioning. Simply offering him a one-night stand would be prejudicing her future with any other man. And what we know about both Ruth and Boaz would make it unlikely that either of them would just be interested in a one-night stand with someone.[†]

Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 179-80.

“The troubling and untamed God that encounters us in Scripture”

September 19, 2014

In the past few weeks, as I’ve preached on the Book of Judges, I’ve reflected on the tension we Christians often feel when we read about God’s commanding Israel to drive out the Canaanites completely. In the case of Jericho, for example, God orders Israelite soldiers to kill every living thing—men, women, children, and livestock. How is God’s command consistent with the teaching of Jesus—to say nothing of the Ten Commandments? Is God authorizing genocide? How do we interpret these texts?

I’ve dealt with these questions in several places—here, here, and here, for instance. The theme of each of these posts is my rejection of the idea that the God revealed in Jesus Christ couldn’t have given this order—that Israel necessarily misunderstood God’s intentions. In other words, I reject the idea that the Bible got it wrong.

Just in time, Rachel Held Evans weighs in on the question on her blog this week, in her review of a new book about the Bible by Peter Enns. Guess which side Held Evans comes down on? One theme of Held Evans’s blog is that she—as someone who grew up evangelical and might kinda sorta still be one even though she constantly complains about evangelicalism—is always “wrestling” with the Bible. Theologian Alastair Roberts, one of Held Evans’s fellow millennials, described her and her fellow progressive evangelicals perfectly: “[A]fter a while of watching progressive evangelicals, one realizes that whatever ‘wrestling’ they are doing, they must be losing, because contemporary liberal values always seem to come out on top.”

Nevertheless, Roberts, a very patient young man, offered some insightful comments on Held Evans’s blog post. For instance, in response to someone named James, who complains that the God revealed in the conquest of Canaan is “so at odds with his revelation through Jesus Christ” that we should reinterpret Old Testament texts, Roberts writes:

The Jesus who causes the death of persons in Corinth who partake of the Supper unworthily? The Christ who destroyed Israelites with serpents in the wilderness for tempting him? The Lamb from whose wrath sinners cower? The Lord who treads the winepress of God’s wrath? The Jesus who employs images of torture and massacre as parabolic images of his future judgment? The Jesus for whom the NT provides hints of pre-existence as the Messenger of the Covenant, who was responsible for killing many thousands in the OT?

The NT portrait of Jesus Christ has various sides and doesn’t fit comfortably into anyone’s preconceptions. Just as Jesus confounded first century expectations of a violent political Messiah, so he confounds modern pacifist expectations of a God without violence. Jesus puts all of us off balance.

To a woman named Cat who responded to this comment, saying that we should reinterpret the New Testament’s words about Second Coming in a strictly metaphorical way, Roberts writes:

Problem is that this isn’t just about the Jesus of the Second Coming. This is about the Christ who was active in the early Church, causing the deaths of such as Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) or unworthy participants in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:29-34). This is about the Christ whose angel caused Herod to be eaten alive by worms (Acts 12:23). This is about the biblical testimony to the fact that pre-incarnate Christ was active in the Old Testament, causing many of the Israelites to be destroyed by serpents and leaving their bodies scattered in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). This is also about the Jesus who brought about the bloody destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, avenging the blood of the martyrs (N.T. Wright is good on this). These events aren’t metaphorical and should be part of our understanding of who Christ is.

One of the things that is missed here is the two visitation motif, something seen in Stephen’s speech in Acts, for instance. The first visitation ends in rejection, but the second visitation is accompanied by authority, power, and judgment. If rejected, serious consequences fall. For instance, David, while pursued by Saul, suffered and did not seek to exercise judgment or avenge himself. However, when he attained to the throne, he did exercise judgment and the appropriate vengeance committed to those in that office. Likewise, the Son of David suffers before he is raised to God’s right hand. However, when he is raised to God’s right hand, those who reject him will be slain before him (cf. Luke 19:27), which is exactly what happened to Jerusalem in AD70, for instance.

Then there’s this:

Before talking about the killing of Canaanite children, we should probably start by talking about God’s slaying of the Egyptian firstborn children in the final plague (joining various biblical dots suggests that these were male children of one month to five years of age). God apparently doesn’t have a problem with killing infants and young children on occasions (and this is certainly not the only case).

For all that Enns and others say about wrestling with Scripture and bravely facing up to the tough issues, the God that we are left with at the end seems to be rather … tame. Hyperbolic rhetoric of ‘courageously’ facing up to the complications and problems of the text, or of God’s supposedly ‘scandalous’, ‘radical’, or ‘shocking’ alignment with our values—pacifist, egalitarian, feminist, whatever—against the misconceptions of a patriarchal and violent society really are little more than a sort of braggadacio beneath which the real impulses dissemble themselves. The ‘wrestling’ is just with the supposed paper tiger of a Scripture whose bark is worse than its bite, rather than with a God who is a consuming fire and must be approached with reverence and a godly fear. All of this masks a deeper cowardice that refuses to recognize the troubling and untamed God that encounters us in Scripture, a God who should unsettle all of us.

Alastair Roberts blogs here. He co-produces an excellent podcast called Mere Fidelity here.

United Methodists affirm “sola scriptura”

September 17, 2014

One of my favorite bloggers, an evangelical theologian from New Zealand named Dr. Glenn Peoples, recently left (or so I gather) a non-liturgical Reformed church in order to become an Anglican. Is this, as some critics have wondered, a step toward “crossing the Tiber” to Roman Catholicism?

No, he says emphatically. And surely one doctrine that would prevent him from doing so more than any other is Rome’s view of the authority of scripture. He highlights this and other important distinctions between Anglican and Catholic theology and doctrine in this blog post, using the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as his guide.

Methodism, as you may know, is steeped in Anglican theology. In fact, our movement’s founder, John Wesley, adopted, with little revision, 25 of the Church of England’s 39 articles for the independent American church after the Revolutionary War. (Among those articles excluded are those that pertain to the monarchy and British politics.) But Wesley himself lived and died happily Anglican, and his reluctant endorsement of the American Methodist church was a concession to life in post-war America.

In this blog post, I want to highlight what Peoples writes about Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles (which is Article V of the Methodist Church):

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

This article goes on to affirm the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible.

I like what Peoples writes because, however briefly, he demonstrates that the Roman Catholic Church’s dual-authority model (in which scripture and church tradition are of equal weight) represents a later innovation.

The Anglican affirmation that the Scripture stands alone, without peer in authority and is sufficient for instruction in the faith, was no novelty. Instead it was the perpetuation of an ancient school of Christian thought. Many theologians (bishops, in fact) among the Church Fathers have expressed the same conviction. Basil the Great held that in principle all instruction for a righteous life could be derived from Scripture and the help of the Holy Spirit:

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.2

Of course, Basil did offer his assistance even in telling people that in principle Scripture and the Spirit supplied all that we strictly need. Like Anglicans, Basil had a great love of tradition, but only where he believed that the tradition was derived from the Apostolic tradition that we find preserved in Scripture. Speaking of the Trinity, he says: “But we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you.”

Anglicans cannot accept a doctrine only on the grounds that it is taught by the Church. Instead they say with Gregory of Nyssa:

We are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.4

Anglicans agree with Augustine that “among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life.”

“We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet.”
Gregory of Nyssa

This ancient Christian way of thinking about authority and doctrine finds clear expression within the Anglican Church, setting it apart from the Catholic view in which the Church has the authority to infallibly declare doctrine as binding on the Church, even when it is not expressed in Scripture. Article 20 expresses the contrary Anglican view of Church Authority: “although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.” The Church has no authority either to decree anything against Scripture, nor does it have the authority to enforce anything as necessary when Scripture does not teach it.

Sermon 09-07-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 5: Gideon”

September 17, 2014

superhero graphic

The people of Israel were committing idolatry at the beginning of today’s scripture. It’s not that they stopped believing in the one true God, Yahweh, but that they were adding other gods to the mix—in case Yahweh wasn’t enough for them.

Are we so different from them? We may not bend our knee and worship idols the way ancient Israel did, but we commit idolatry whenever we look to some person or thing to meet our deepest needs. What are the warning signs of this kind of idolatry? What can we do to prevent it?

In Jesus Christ, God gives us everything we need to prevent this kind of idolatry, as this sermon makes clear.

Sermon Text: Judges 6:1-27, 33-40

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Did you hear the news? This Tuesday, Auburn graduate and Apple Computer CEO Tim Cook will announce the first entirely new product of his tenure as Steve Jobs’s successor: the product is the iWatch. Well, we don’t know for sure what it’ll be called, but we know for sure it will be a smartwatch, a powerful computer that you wear on your wrist.


Apple CEO Tim Cook

One consumer technology consultant who’s seen it told the New York Times last week: “I believe it’s going to be historic.”

And I believe I’m going to need an iWatch. But let me explain: as many of you know, I’ve recently rededicated myself to working out, getting “swole,” and at least getting in kind of shape necessary to be an American Ninja Warrior. Why are you laughing? I’m serious. And insiders say that this new iWatch will leave exercise-related products from FitBit and Nike in the dust. It will track all your footsteps, monitor your vital signs, yell at you when you reach for that extra piece of key lime pie. The new iWatch has everything an American Ninja Warrior could want.

Read the rest of this entry »

Billy Graham wasn’t wrong to emphasize Jesus as a “personal Savior”

September 15, 2014


A pastor friend of mine asked me to share my thoughts on this blog post about contemporary evangelism by a Northern Seminary professor named David Fitch.

Fitch opposes “formulaic” presentations of the gospel, “[w]hether it be a Billy Graham Crusade, a Seeker Service or a 4 Spirtual Laws booklet,” because they rely on “techniques to convince someone of their need/sinfulness and a process for receiving the gospel. Today, among the masses, these techniques are perceived (most often) as coercive.” Worse, because the goal of these techniques is to convince someone of the truth of the gospel, they effectively “deny the prevenient work of the Holy Spirit.”

Let us always believe God is drawing people to Himself, including us through our non-believing friends. Then let us tend to His presence by being present to the other person allowing for His presence between us. This space then becomes the arena for the in breaking Kingdom.  Evangelism happens in the space of His presence between us and other people, not in a coerced set-up presentation.

He also believes that it’s time to abandon or at least deemphasize “forensic” theories of atonement such as penal substitution in favor of the Christus Victor model, which emphasizes the victory that God has inaugurated over the powers of sin, death, evil, and violence.

Substitutionary models of atonement in my opinion (and this includes Anselm) were later contextualizations (not that there is anything wrong with that). Their forensic nature connects less and less with cultures of the West. Expand your understanding of the gospel. Read Scot McKnight, NT Wright, Gustaf Auelen as a start.  Come to see evangelism as the inviting of people into the world where Jesus is Lord, not merely leading people to accept Jesus as their “personal” Savior.

Finally, he argues that evangelism should be aimed less at convincing people of the truth of the gospel than proclaiming that truth and letting the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting within the non-Christian’s heart.

I think I’ve fairly represented his argument.

As for my response, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you can probably predict it. First, I disagree strongly that substitutionary atonement was some medieval innovation by Anselm with which we Protestants later fell in love. I believe it is the primary (though hardly exclusive) biblical way to understand how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God. Christus Victor is fine and true enough, but it doesn’t offer an explanation of how the victory of the cross happens.

Wherever we come down on atonement, I would insist that we emphasize that God has done something—objectively, once and for all—to take care of my guilt (and your guilt) for the sins that I’ve committed (and you’ve committed). This is incredibly good news to me personally, so if that means that I overemphasize Jesus as a “personal” Savior, well, so be it.

How can the gospel not be deeply personal? Eternity hangs in the balance of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation through Christ. What a relief that God has done something through the cross of his Son that saves me from the eternal consequences of my sin!

Billy Graham and his fellow evangelicals didn’t invent the doctrine of hell, and Jesus himself spoke about it more than anyone in scripture. Was Jesus being coercive when he did so?

Well, I’ve covered all this ground before. If you have doubts about penal substitution and its central place in scripture, please see Dr. Robert Gagnon’s excellent essay, which I discuss and link to here.

Here’s what I wrote, rather quickly, to my pastor friend (who agrees with me):

Thanks for the link. I actually disagree… Strongly, I’m afraid. How would we (in the mainline especially) know whether the Billy Graham approach works anymore? When was the last time anyone tried it? We can “be present” with non-Christians all we want… At some point we must use words to share the gospel. This author’s words have a nice post-modern ring to them, but they seem to endorse the status quo of evangelism is mainline churches. The status quo doesn’t work.

As for substitutionary atonement versus Christus Victor, first, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, but I’m sorry: each of us must confront the fact that we are sinners. Christus Victor doesn’t say how the cross reconciles us to God, only that it does. How? What happens? To the credit of “forensic” models of atonement, they purport to offer an explanation—one which, frankly, is writ large across Paul’s letter to the Romans and which makes good sense of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Any atonement model that fails to say that each of us is a sinner who needs God to have accomplished something objective on the cross to deal with our “personal” sin against a holy God is deficient, in my opinion. Substitutionary atonement does that very well. And Tim Keller is one of the world’s great preachers, in my view, because he communicates that clearly in every sermon!

And I’m tired of the old knock against the “personal” Savior and Scot McKnight’s put-down of what he calls the “soterian” gospel. Of course the gospel is deeply personal to those whose lives have been changed by Jesus! It’s personal first of all… then we can talk about where we go from there!

Is there any decision that an individual can make that’s more important than to accept God’s gift of salvation through Christ? Unless there is, don’t tell me Billy Graham has been surpassed!

The words about how the old model fails to depend on the Holy Spirit? Oh please! Should we instead do a really crummy job presenting the gospel—one which fails to address felt needs of an individual’s life, one that is unclear and confusing—because, if people still convert in spite of our efforts, then we’ll know that the Holy Spirit was responsible?

Michael Wilcock and Barry Webb on Samson’s atoning death

September 12, 2014

Webb’s recent commentary, along with Wilcock’s older Bible Speaks Today volume, help us navigate our way through a difficult but rewarding book of the Bible.

Insightful commentary and darn good writing, here’s Michael Wilcock, from his Bible Speaks Today commentary on Judges, commenting on Judges 16:1-3:

Samson was paying a visit to Gaza (whatever for? Even if Israelites generally now felt at home among their Philistine neighbours, how could Samson imagine that he would be welcome? Still, there he was), and he saw another girl he fancied; she was a prostitute, and ‘he went in to her’.

No doubt at the time it meant nothing in particular to him. Not that anything ever did, much. But then when he is not saving Israel, he is being Israel, and that is most of the time. Sometimes he represents God as Israel sees him; much more often it seems that he represents Israel as God sees her, and here is a cheerfully representative episode. It is no use being shocked. In this way we are all Samsons in some way or other, relishing the wrong thing in the wrong place, not least as we are persuaded that it doesn’t particularly matter.[1]

My sermon this Sunday on Samson will no doubt focus on the ways in which he represents Israel. He is her representative in a quasi-official capacity as judge. But more importantly, he’s her representative as sinner. His sins are her sins writ large. To be sure, when he dies, he dies for his own sins (foremost of which is forsaking the last vestige of his Nazirite vow: to keep his hair from being cut). Even more, he dies for Israel’s sins, a death by which God’s people will be saved—more or less. The Philistines will at least be less of an enemy, until a more decisive victory comes by way of David a couple of centuries later.

So we see in Samson’s suffering and cruciform death between two pillars a foreshadowing of Christ’s passion and atoning death on the cross. Jesus is without sin, but as Israel’s representative, he takes her sins upon himself and dies in order to save God’s people and defeat God’s enemies.

There plenty of other parallels to the gospel, as Barry Webb points out here:

Christian readers can hardly fail to notice a number of points of correspondence between the broad structure of Samson’s career and that of Christ: his annunciation by a divine messenger, his marvelous conception, his holiness as a Nazirite, his endowment with the Spirit, his rejection by his own people, his being handed over by their leaders, the mocking and scorn he suffered at their hands, and the way his calling was consummated in his death, by which he defeated the god Dagon and laid the foundation for a deliverance to be fully realized in a day to come. The correspondences are too numerous, and too germane to who Samson was, for what he achieved to be simply brushed aside as fanciful.[2]

1. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Judges (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992), 146.

2. Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 418-9.

“For it is by works that you have succeeded, not by gifts”

September 11, 2014

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our giftedness.

Last night I began a new Bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It was a lively discussion, with much laughter. After it was over, a parishioner asked me, “How do you know all that stuff?” After pausing for a moment, I said, “It’s a gift, I guess.”

Just saying those words, “It’s a gift,” didn’t feel right, and we both laughed it off. But I would be a hypocrite to answer any other way.

Why? Because I had made reference, just the night before at church council, to this brilliant new Christianity Today column from my favorite young theologian (and pastor), Andrew Wilson. He writes:

Imagine asking two successful people how they managed to accomplish what they have. The first says, “I’m just very gifted.” The second says, “I’ve just worked very hard.” Who sounds more smug?

Our meritocracy—in which people are valued based on ability alone—has conditioned us to consider it arrogant to attribute our accomplishments to God’s gracious gift. For some reason, gift talk sounds elitist. Conversely, we think we’re being humble when we say we worked hard for our success. The gospel polarity of grace versus works, though correctly understood in theory, is capsized in practice: “You succeeded? You must have worked harder than others,” we think. “You didn’t succeed? Try again.”

For it is by works you have succeeded, not by gifts, so that no one can boast. Logical as it may seem, it’s far from the gospel.

Why does believing that we’re gifted seem conceited when, technically, it’s exactly opposite of conceited? When we say we possess a gift, we acknowledge that credit doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to the Gift-Giver. And it’s not like we did anything to earn it because, again, it’s a gift.

I suspect one reason we’re reluctant to say that we’re gifted is because we don’t want to be misunderstood: to say we’re gifted is not to say that we’re more gifted than someone else. When I was ministering in Alpharetta, I would think twice about saying (or even believing) that I’m a gifted preacher because, after all, I’m no Andy Stanley.

But that isn’t the point: to whatever extent we possess a gift, we do so because of God. On this point, Wilson’s words resonate with me. I know what it’s like to play that potentially deadly game of comparing my success to other people’s success—and worrying that I don’t measure up.

I’m preaching to myself here. For years I’ve struggled with envying a friend who is more gifted than I am. He’s a better leader, a more prolific writer, a superior linguist, and a more effective preacher. When I think like a meritocrat, I feel dispirited: He’s a better Christian. He deserves success. When I think like a charismatic, I experience freedom: He’s been given a different gift and doesn’t deserve it any more than I do. Grace—gloriously—brings liberty. What do you have that you did not receive?

I’m anticipating an objection: “Sure, our talents, to some extent, come from God, but don’t we have to do something to develop them?”

When I think of Jesus’ parable of the talents, for instance, I can’t help but answer yes. But mostly what we do is to allow God to do through us. God offers us grace. We receive it. God offers us grace. We receive it. Et cetera.

Regardless, our role in the process, when compared to God’s role, is very small—which is why we acknowledge that it’s a gift.