Posts Tagged ‘Trevin Wax’

C.S. Lewis and the parable of the dog and its owner

February 2, 2017

Today’s edition of “What C.S. Lewis said.”

Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount, which we started looking at in last week’s sermon, with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in heart… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc. Another word for “blessed” is happy—specifically, to be made deeply happy by God. Indeed, a few modern translations substitute the word “happy” for “blessed”—no doubt because translators perceive that “blessed” has an old-fashioned ring to it. 

But I still like “blessed.” In fact, I like the recent phenomenon of being wished a “blessed day” rather than a “nice day”—because it reminds me where true happiness comes from.

My point is, God wants us to be truly and deeply happy. He wants us to be blessed.

Yet, as we turn our attention to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it can often seem as if God were trying to thwart happiness at every turn. Jesus makes a series of seemingly impossible (or literally impossible) demands on every aspect of our lives. (We’ll look at one of those demands this week.) If we buy into our culture’s idea that being happy is a matter of “getting in touch with ourselves,” of “being who we truly are,” Jesus’ sermon will feel like a splash of cold water.

Why is God so demanding, so uncompromising, when it comes to telling us how to live?

In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis shares the following parable (h/t Trevin Wax), which can shed light on the answer:

Supposing you are taking a dog on a lead through a turnstile or past a post. You know what happens (apart from his usual ceremonies in passing a post!). He tries to go to the wrong side and gets his head looped round the post. You see that he can’t do it, and therefore pull him back. You pull him back because you want to enable him to go forward. He wants exactly the same thing—namely to go forward: for that very reason he resists your pull back, or, if he is an obedient dog, yields to it reluctantly as a matter of duty which seems to him to be quite in opposition to his own will: though in fact it is only by yielding to you that he will ever succeed in getting where he wants.

In this parable, the dog and its owner both want the same thing: to move forward. Likewise, we want the same thing that God wants for us: to be happy. Like the dog in the parable, we don’t know how to make that happen. And in our misguided efforts to do so, we get ourselves tangled up. This is what the Bible describes as sin. God, however, knows how to untangle us and get us moving in the right direction. But even this is an understatement, considering that the intellectual distance between us and God is infinitely greater than the intellectual distance between a dog and its owner.

Do we believe that God knows what’s best for us? If we say we do, are we living in a way that’s consistent with this belief? If not, what changes do we need to make?

Ask the Holy Spirit to identify and give you power to make those changes.

Jesus drank the “cup of God’s wrath” for me

June 30, 2014

I’ve spent many posts on this blog defending penal substitution, not because I think it’s the only biblical way of understanding God’s atoning work on the cross, but because penal substitution is the point at which the rubber meets the road for me. I need to know that on the cross God accomplished something objective to deal with my sins—my ugly, wrath-deserving sins—and it has nothing to do with my (feeble) subjective response.

By all means, Christ won a victory over sin, Satan, and death and demonstrated the love of God to the fullest extent possible, but where does that leave me and my guilt? I need to know that he paid for my sins in full.

Trevin Wax has a nice reflection on N.T. Wright’s affirmation of penal substitution. Wright often gets criticized in more Reformed corners of the evangelical world for refusing to justify Reformation-era doctrines on anything other than biblical grounds as construed by him rather than Calvin, Zwingli, or Luther. Wright will often say something like, “Of course they’re right, but there’s so much more to it than that!”

As Wax points out, Wright does the same with penal substitution.

One insight I hadn’t considered before is that Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane also speaks to penal substitution:

When speaking of “the wrath of God” on Jesus at the cross, Wright turns to the Gethsemane narrative, and specifically Jesus’ use of the “cup” terminology from the Old Testament. Since, in the prophetic writings, the “cup” refers to God’s wrath, Wright believes it is historically sound to affirm that Jesus was referring to God’s wrath when He willingly faced the cross, in order to drink of the cup. Nowhere does Wright articulate the idea of the “cup” more powerfully than in his Matthew commentary:

“The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself.”

Notice how Wright maintains the “cup of wrath” in historical context. This is the way he avoids the picture of God as a tyrant taking out His vengeance on His Son for others’ mistakes. Wright sees the wrath of God in historical events. “Jesus takes the wrath of Rome (which is…the historical embodiment of the wrath of God) upon himself…” In fact, God has set Jesus forth as a hilasterion (propitiation).

It is because Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God in order to shield His people that He uttered His cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. In that moment in which Jesus was most fully embodying God’s love, He found Himself cut off and separated from that love. Furthermore, Jesus’ taking upon Himself the wrath of God against sin (through the Roman crucifixion) frees us from sin and guilt.

“Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again.”

Again and again, Wright affirms the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Theologians may quibble with him for not putting this at the center of his atonement theology; others may chide him for not speaking of it more often. But no one who has read Wright fairly can charge him of denying this doctrine. I close this section with a paragraph from one of Wright’s early works, which he has since affirmed in other ways in later writings:

“On the cross Jesus took on himself that separation from God which all other men know. He did not deserve it; he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God; but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment which that sinful humanity deserved was laid fairly and squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the ‘cup’ offered to him. He knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it. He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually… Here is the bill, and on it the word ‘finished’ – ‘paid in full.’ The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished.”

“Cutting little deals with God”

March 3, 2014

In my sermon yesterday, I borrowed an analogy from Tim Keller to speak about our idolatrous impulse to “fill up our spiritual tanks” on some “fuel” other than the things of God. “Everything we need to fill up our tanks,” I said, “comes from God alone—and he doesn’t charge us for it, and we can’t pay him for it, and we don’t have to earn it. It’s all grace.” Continuing:

I’ll be honest: As a man, I have a hard time trusting that my value, my worth, comes from Christ alone by grace, and not from my own strength, my own work ethic, my own intellect—not from anything I can do or accomplish or pay for. It wounds my pride to have a debt that I can’t pay. So I sometimes live my Christian life as if I am earning God’s love, as if I am paying him back.

And then when I fall short and sin, I feel terribly guilty! Like how could God forgive me this time—I mean, sure, I needed God’s grace to forgive my previous 14,326 sins, but I’ve been paying my own way since then, and somehow I’m still in the red with God. Surely God will grow weary of continuing to bail me out, right?

Of course not—the cross of his Son Jesus has covered all my sins, past, present, and future. So when it comes to sin, we repent and move on, confident that God nailed every sin of ours to the cross of his Son Jesus!

Have you noticed I’ve been preaching the cross in nearly every sermon I’ve delivered over the past few years? I confess it feels a bit unfashionable—certainly nothing I learned at mainline Protestant seminary prepared me to do this—but I don’t care: On the cross, God did something objective, once and for all, to pay the debt of our sin for those who accept his gift of forgiveness. I care less for what particular theory of atonement you hold (though I have my strong opinions!) than that you affirm that the cross is the objective means by which we are reconciled to God.

In a series of helpful blog posts, the Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax (a Southern Baptist) has been reflecting on issues pertaining to atonement theology, including this one about propitiation. I’ve heard a few seminary-educated United Methodists argue passionately that Christ was not offered as propitiation for our sins. I guess it gets back to that old “cosmic child abuse” caricature of penal substitution—who knows? The idea of Christ as propitiation seems uncontroversial to me.

I especially liked this part from his blog, which reminds me of what I said in yesterday’s sermon. Indeed, we are not “big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God,” and our sin “isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings.”

One reason it’s so important to grasp what biblical propitiation is, is so that we can make sure our plan is the biblical one rather than one of our own devising.

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

To lapse into pagan modes of propitiation is to take way too much onto your own shoulders (you’re not big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God) and attempt to solve it with entirely inappropriate resources (your sin isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings).

Everybody needs a plan for getting on the right side of the gods. But if the true God has made his character known as it is found in the Bible, then there’s only one way of propitiation: the one that God himself put forward in the blood of Jesus, to be received by faith, the one who is his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Enough about millennials already!

August 2, 2013

I was going to ignore Rachel Held Evans nearly substance-free piece on CNN’s Belief Blog last week—the one in which America’s favorite “Christian spokesperson for a generation” tells us why millennials are leaving church. But apparently many people—at least most of my clergy friends on Facebook—seem to think she’s saying something.

What is she saying? What would a church look like that actually took to heart her message?

According to this writer, an African-American and former United Methodist who is now in the Presbyterian Church in America, the hypothetical church that millennials would embrace would look a lot like our very own United Methodist Church.

Don’t laugh: he’s serious.

The UMC is outside of the culture wars. It has no conflicts with science and faith and clearly teaches what they are for instead of against. The UMC is a place where LGBT friends are welcomed. Moreover, if anyone knows anything about Wesleyanism, you know that Methodists have a deep emphasis on personal holiness and social action. Again, the Jesus that Evans wants to find is waiting for her and her followers in the UMC.

And that’s the problem. Why aren’t all these millennials flocking to our churches?

In fact, we have empirical evidence to prove that Evans doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

One of the many blind spots in Evans’ entire project is that young evangelicals are not leaving evangelical churches to join mainline churches like the UMC, they are leaving the church altogether in many cases. Evans’ list does not help us understand that phenomena much at all. In fact, even the UMC, with all Evans’ lauded attributes, is hemorrhaging. The bottom line is that most American Christian denominations are declining across the board, especially among their millennial attendees, and it would require a fair amount of hubris to attempt to explain the decline across America’s 350,000 congregations.

I do not have the answer to my original question but I do know that Evans and her fans seem to long for United Methodism and should be encouraged to join the denomination, and other mainline churches like it, since they do not believe the churches they criticize have Jesus. Criticizing evangelical churches on CNN for not being essentially United Methodist seems bizarre and, perhaps, reveals that what Evans actually represents is nothing but American United Methodism in evangelical whiteface.

Evans writes, “We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.”

What does that even mean? Should we not recite the Apostles’ Creed on Sundays? After all, what are creeds if not “predetermined answers”?

But, I hasten to add, they’re not predetermined from the beginning. Incredibly smart people argued about these questions until they reached consensus. They asked and answered big, important questions like, “Is Jesus divine and to what extent? Is he fully God? Is Jesus fully human or did he just appear to be? If he is fully human, how does divinity and humanity coexist within him? How exactly does Jesus save us from our sins?”

Do we need to reopen the debate? Do we need to re-argue the same questions? We’re not going to out-think Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, or Augustine. By all means, if answers are available, whose answers are we going to trust?

Me, I’ll stick with the old guys. They were really bright.

Evans says churches need to stop getting so hung up on sex. But I like what Trevin Wax (who’s the same age as Evans, by the way) says:

Following Jesus leaves no part of our life unchanged.

That’s why it strikes me as odd that Rachel sees “obsession with sex” as one of the biggest obstacles for contemporary Christianity to overcome. I visit lots of churches, and I find that sexuality is not a frequently discussed subject from most church platforms or Bible studies. In fact, one could make the case that Christians haven’t talked enough about Jesus’ radical zealousness when it comes to sexuality. The fact that cohabitation, premarital sex and pornography are often overlooked among our congregations betrays the vision of sexuality Jesus put forward – a vision of the sacredness of a man and woman’s covenant for life, one that excludes even lustful thoughts from God’s design.

When it comes to sexual obsession, we ought to take a look at pop culture. One can hardly watch a TV show or a popular movie without being assaulted with sexual innuendos, crude jokes, or overt displays of all kinds of sexuality. Pastors and church leaders go on news talk shows and are badgered about their views of sexuality, as if nothing else matters but that the church join in and celebrate our culture’s embrace of Aphrodite in all her warped splendor.

I’ll leave it to Wax and others to pick apart the logic, such as it is, of Evans’s piece. I’ll leave you with this comment on my post yesterday about God’s wrath in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone.” This comes from my clergy friend Clay:

Yes! But we mainliners can’t talk about wrath or judgment any longer since we don’t believe in either or are worried someone (a millennial!) might be listening and get offended.

How about we stop worrying about what millennials think and strive to be faithful?

I’ve written about Evans before. See this blog post, for example, about her latest book.

If the Old Testament is about Jesus, why don’t we preach and teach it more?

August 13, 2012

In a post a while back, I described being startled by a mainline Protestant theologian’s words of introduction to a recent Brazos commentary on Jonah:

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.[1]

While I mostly loved my education at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, these words would not have passed muster in my Old Testament classes there. No one comes right out and says so, but one premise of much Old Testament teaching in mainline seminary is that, contrary to what we learned in Sunday school—and, worse, contrary to what those New Testament authors thought—the Old Testament isn’t really about Jesus. Having been so indoctrinated, I wonder if this is one reason most of us United Methodist preachers don’t preach much on the Old Testament? We stick with the New Testament because at least we know that it has something to say about Jesus and the gospel.

In my recently concluded “Sunday School Heroes” sermon series, which focused mostly on the Old Testament, I purposely tried to find the gospel in each passage I covered. It was surprisingly easy to do. I confess that, in part because of this experience, my attitude toward the Old Testament has changed.

Of course, we Christian preachers and teachers need to uncover what the Old Testament meant to its original audience in Israel—and, by all means, this task is greatly enriched by listening to what our Jewish friends have to say from their tradition. But the question we should ask soon afterward is, “What does this passage say about Jesus and the gospel?”

With this in mind, I appreciated Trevin Wax’s words about preaching and teaching the Old Testament:

— Is there anything about my treatment of this Old Testament text that a faithful Jew could not affirm?

If we preach the story of Moses, for example, without ever pointing forward to our Passover Lamb (Jesus Christ), then we are preaching the Old Testament much like a rabbi, not like a Christian herald of the Gospel. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told His disciples that the Old Testament pointed to Him… So when we preach from the Old Testament, it’s imperative that we point people forward to the Messiah.

What do you think? Should Christian preaching/teaching from the Old Testament always point people toward the Messiah?

Once again, David Bentley Hart on suffering

September 6, 2011

In my previous post, I recommended David Bentley Hart’s book on theodicy to Trevin Wax. That book grew out of this essay that Hart wrote in the wake of 2005’s St. Stephen’s Day tsunami. I just re-read the essay, and it’s as powerful as I remember. Hart attacks the hyper-Calvinist view that the end of history will justify its means. No matter the evil, we will see in retrospect that it was really for our own good, and that without it, life in God’s kingdom wouldn’t be as sweet.

One key to understanding Hart’s line of reasoning is the traditional Christian understanding of evil: It is not something in and of itself; it is the absence of something—specifically, the absence of good. With that in mind, Hart writes, evil “can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness.” He continues:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”


Getting drunk on God’s sovereignty

September 6, 2011

These New Calvinists are a weird bunch. They take the most unspeakably evil tragedy and say not merely that God allowed it, not merely that God will use it to bring good, but that God caused it. They remind me a little of conspiracy theorists: the very lack of evidence for—or evidence directly contradictingtheir point of view is further proof of their belief. The more incomprehensible the evil—the more reluctant any sane person would be to say, “The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ must be the author of this”—the more satisfied they are that “God is in control” and “God’s will is done,” so praise God!

I try to give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time, but then I read something like this post from Trevin Wax. If I’m misinterpreting what he’s saying, please tell me how.

My favorite part is this:

Is it worth it having free will just so God can be loved without force? Isn’t there something bigger than our love for God?

I would ask that Wax refrain from using the word “love” because without freedom the word has no meaning. Coerced love isn’t love.

Good, evil, love, hatred, indifference… From Wax’s point of view, what’s the difference? A sovereign God wills what God wills, so praise God. In many ways, this extreme form of Calvinism isn’t much different from Hinduism: Whatever happens is really good, because it’s all God. What you see is what you get. If you don’t like what you see, that’s your problem, not God’s.

I would also recommend that Wax read David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea. Christian thinking on this subject didn’t begin in the sixteenth century.