On the value of repetition in worship

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 10.05.21 AMIf you grew up in more conservative evangelical circles like I did, you can have a very particular reaction to music played in church or on the radio that includes repeating lines or phrases over and over again.

Oh come on,” you might say, “This is just meaningless repetition or shameless emotionalism!  What does this have to do with worshiping God?

Well, as it turns out, a lot actually!

I won’t include every example here, but even a brief survey of the Scriptures shows us that repetition is a powerful tool used frequently both for emphasis, as well as for the embedding of a truth in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

Deut. 11:18-21 provides clear instruction to both state and restate the truths of God over and over and in every circumstance of life in order to (amoung other things) bring about generational worship of the one true God.

Ps. 118 is an obvious example of repetition in worship. “His steadfast love endures forever,” following vast and varied truths of the God of heaven and earth.

Phil. 4:4 sees Paul giving a simple command to rejoice in the Lord always, and then – in the same sentence – repeating the command to emphasize its importance.

And in 2 Peter 1:12-13, Peter seems to find no problem repeating and reminding the church of things he says he knows they already know.

And those are just a few examples!

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Where this all came to great clarity to me was a few months back driving out to Langley for one of my MDiv seminars.  I was listening to the song “Everlasting Father” by Elevation worship from their new album “Only King forever.”  During the bridge, the music quiets, and the female singer begins to sing a simple line,

I am loved, I am loved by my Father!  I’m forever Yours!”

Over the next minute or so of the song, she repeats this very same line as the music dynamically builds to an awesome crescendo.  And I’m listening to this song – and I know this part is coming – and I start to have that same “conservative” reaction I spoke of to the song.

But then – Cinephile that I am – I think the Spirit brought to mind that powerful scene from the film Goodwill Hunting when the late Robin Williams character says to Matt Damon’s character (Will) of the abuse he suffered throughout his childhood at the hands of his father,

Hey Will, you know what?  All this [pointing to the case file that documents the abuse he suffered]; all this sh*t: it’s not your fault.”

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And then, in the very same way (though without the sweeping band behind him) he just repeats the same line, “It’s not your fault,” over and over and over again; each time he says it, the truth that Will has never confronted and certainly doesn’t believe to be true, presses deeper and deeper into his heart, to the point where he even violently lashes out at the counsellor, to push away the healing balm he is steadily applying to his deeply wounded soul.

And as I thought of that powerful scene, all of a sudden I start hearing,

I am loved, I am loved by my Father!  I’m forever Yours!”

over and over again … and now I almost have to pull the car over I’m weeping so hard; overwhelmed by the staggering truth that I am both known and loved by the God of the universe; that I am His child forever and He is my eternal Father.

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Can repetition in worship be overdone – even abused?  Sure it can.  But it can also be a powerful tool to press the truths of God and His word deep into the hearts of His children whom He has set His eternal love on.

Taking God at His word: book review

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“We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the bible, and we ought not to read the bible without an eye to the Word incarnate … Scripture, because it is the breathed-out word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.”

So says Kevin DeYoung in his most recent book “Taking God at His word.”

The book is really treatise on (he calls it a “doctrine of”) the Scriptures and, at times, even feels like a modern day “Fundamentalism and the word of God” (J I Packer’s go to text on the same subject from a few decades back).  It is utterly readable both in length (just over 100 pages in e-format) as well as continuing in DeYoung’s intellectual, yet distinctly modern and accessible style of writing, which packs a tonne into those 100 pages.

DeYoung treats different aspects of this treatise on/doctrine of Scripture in subsequent chapters: from the reliability and inspiration of the Scriptures (Ch.2), to the sufficiency of the Scriptures (Ch.3).  The following chapters continue what he presents from the “SCAN” acronym, to include the Clarity of Scripture (Ch.4), the Authority of Scripture(Ch.5), and the Necessity of Scripture (Ch. 6).  Chapter 7 deals helpfully with Jesus’ view of Scripture and Chapter 8 concludes with an exposition of 2 Timothy 3 (vs. 14-17 specifically) exhorting us (like Timothy) to remain in the word as well as remembering those from whom we learned it.  He then concludes the book with a list helpful resources for further reading at all levels of interest – from beginner to serious theological student.

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All in all, for me, this book accomplished what it set out to do at the beginning with DeYoung’s exposition of Ps. 119, viz. it inspired and grew my love for God and His word – I believe it will do exactly the same thing for you.  Over and over again while reading this book I found my heart worshipping, and my Evernote buzzing as I wrote down thoughts and quotations. DeYoung has given us a real treasure in this little book in that it deals seriously (protectively even) with the doctrine of Scripture and yet it does so in a way that is engaging and which inspires genuine worship of the God who inspired it to be written.

I would highly recommend this book to a small group/discipleship group that wants to look at the doctrine of Scripture, the amateur theologian who wants to grow in their ability to handle the Scriptures, as well as anyone who just loves the bible and wants to be inspired to love it even more.  A great resource which – at just over 100 pages – is accessible, engaging and packed full of truth.

*Note: I received a free pre-release of this book for review from Crossway. 

“Where exactly are you headed?”: Of gender and destinations

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Imagine this scenario for a moment: someone approaches you in the town where you live asking for directions.  You agree and ask, “Where exactly are you headed?” to which they reply “I’m not really sure actually, but I know I need to get there. It’s where I’m supposed to be.  Can you help me?”

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Anyone in this situation would very likely ask how this person intends to get to their desired destination when they don’t even know where it is they need to get to.  Knowing your destination seems like necessary information to have if you “need” to get somewhere; if it’s where you’re “supposed” to be.

  Enter every discussion, article read, and information found regarding gender dysphoria.

In a genuine desire to understand, I’ve asked the question yet again in the comment section of recent articles in the Huffington Post and the Vancouver Sun, each time finding sadly inadequate responses (or no response at all) to:

“What does it mean to be a girl and not a boy?”

Now perhaps that sounds, at the outset, like an overly philosophical, navel-gazing-esque, type of question.  But really the question it quite basic.  I’m simply asking the parents of the toddler-aged trans child, as well as the child themselves, to define this destination to which they say they “need” to get to; that they are “supposed” to be at.

I tried to focus the question even further and ask,

“Ok, putting aside for the moment even, the differences in ‘plumbing’ and the stereotypes often attached to gender in C21, what does it really mean for a boy to say he wants to be/is a girl?”

… Crickets.

I even had two women recently tell me that the question itself was irrelevant to the discussion!  Really?!  Being able to actually define the destination you are certain you must get to is irrelevant?

Maureen Mullarkey in a recent article in First Things entitled Androgyny, rightly states that gender is “a linguistic signifier, not a biological one.”  And yet, haven’t you seen how often the two (linguistics and biology) are confused and treated as synonymous when convenient to the transgender discussion?

And most nod and smile and say, “Yes, yes. Were not talking about biological sex but gender.”  But it must be conceded that the 4 year old boy is not saying that his “linguistic modifier” is wrong but that his sex is wrong.  The very use of the term “gender”, then, allows one to skip, indiscriminately and invisibly, between linguistics and biology.

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And so I asked my 7 and 8 year old daughters just the other day, “What does it mean to say that you are a girl and not a boy” and I framed the question with the same modifiers (‘plumbing’ and stereotypes excluded in age appropriate ways) but also under the heading of Gen. 1:27

“So God made man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (ESV)

I asked, “If God made both boys and girls in His image, what is it that is different about the two?”

And then they talked about it for a while.  But it was my 8 year-old in the end who said,

“Well, God made girls to have eggs inside them and to be able to hold babies, and that’s different from boys.  And he made boys to have sperm that fertilize those eggs, and also strong to be able to protect their families – that’s different from girls.”

And so I asked,

“Would you say then that one way girls show the image of God is by creating and caring for children like God does?  And that being strong and seeking to protect their kids is one different way that boys show the image of God in them?”

“Oh yeah!” they both said.

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Now, that’s not everything of course.  But we have to say that – even from an 8 year-old child’s understanding – the definition of the desired “destination” then (if that is even the desired destination), is one that is biologically, hormonally, physiologically, as well as according to divine design, impossible to reach.  And yet, what we are also really saying today is that simply “believing really strongly” that something is true, trumps all those other things; that it makes both the definition of, as well as the reality of, that destination unarguably legitimate.

Welcome to the 21st Century.  Insert your GPS firmly within the glove compartment – it will be of no use to you here.

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Eternal functional subordination within the Trinity: a thesis

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No doubt, when many people hear the word subordination, they immediately conjure up images in their minds like this one above, or worse.

Use the word submission, they think of this:
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 And, outside of Christian circles, if you mention the word “Trinity” many people might immediately think of this:

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There’s no question the words can appropriately be used in those ways, and yet, when referring to the trinitarian God of the Bible, none of them would actually be accurate.  Problem is, the propensity for our minds to jump to these sorts of images – particularly the first one – is one of the first hurdles that needs to be overcome when we try to deal with the subject of the eternal functional submission of Christ within the Trinity.  For the minute you hear “subordination” and think “subjugation” or “superiority” you’ve immediately lost the true picture of what is meant.

There are two key terms often used in theological circles when referring to the Trinity. The first refers to the nature or being of the Trinity both corporately and with respect to each Person of the Trinity (Ontological/Immanent Trinity).  The second refers to how the various persons of the Trinity operate, basically what they do (Functional/Economic Trinity).  Opponents of the eternal functional subordination (EFS hereafter) of Christ often state that these are, essentially, one and the same thing but, respectfully, and logically, I see difficulties in saying that who someone is in the essence of their being (deity or not) is the same thing as what they do or their function – the two are, no doubt, very closely aligned, but certainly not interchangeable.  I will not labour to prove that premise further, but simply leave it there as a largely self-evident truth.

So what is meant when referring to the eternal functional subordination of Christ?  I’ll deal with this in two parts:

1. The subordination of Christ in His incarnation

Here, actually, both sides generally agree that Christ was – in some measure – subordinate to the Father in His incarnation. After all, Jesus is the One who is sent, not the Father (John 20:21); Jesus is the One who suffered and died and was raised back to life, not the Father (1 Cor. 15:3-4); Jesus is the One who left His glory in heaven and took on flesh (Phil. 2:5-11), all according to the Father’s will (John 6:38), not the Father.  So most would agree that Christ was subordinate to the Father in His incarnation and all that His earthly life entailed, carrying out the will of the Father who sent Him.

2. The eternal subordination of Christ within the Trinity

The real disagreement comes when one begins to say that Christ was only subordinate to the Father in His incarnation, and that now He is no longer so.  This is where those fancy terms I mentioned earlier become so important.  Opponents of EFS often are quick to say that all the members of the Trinity are equal and it is problematic to speak of hierarchy within a co-equal Trinity.  Proponents of EFS would actually agree and quickly point out that this is why the position is called eternal functional subordination, not eternal ontological subordination.  To speak of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit for that mater) as in any sense being less God, contradicts both the Scriptures and what is clearly laid out in both the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds.  All three Persons of the Trinity are absolutely co-equal in essence (ontology).  And yet, for someone to function in a role that is subordinate, submissive to, or “beneath” another person, in no way necessitates seeing them an ontologically inferior.  If you have a boss that you work for, doing his will and performing your job in no way means that you are somehow less of a person by nature; a lower form of humanity somehow.  Wives are commanded to be submissive to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24) and yet that in no way makes them inferior human beings and not co-equal image bearers of God; co-equal in significance and dignity.  The same could be said of children and parents (Eph. 6:1).

So we see that functioning in a role beneath someone, does not mean that they are in any sense lesser.  This is how we can say that Christ (as well as the Holy Spirit for that matter) are functionally subordinate to the Father.  Along with that, we could say the Holy Spirit – though equally God Himself) is also functionally subordinate to Christ in that one of His primary roles is to point, not to Himself, but to Christ (John 15:26).

Where do we see Christ eternally functioning in a subordinate role in Scripture?

Good question – I’m glad you asked.  There are a few key passages where I see this:

1. 1 Cor. 15:27-28

Here Paul is very clear that Christ will deliver the kingdom to the Father, and that the Father will put all things in subjection under Christ, but he is also clear that the Father will not be put under Christ, basically b/c He (the Father) is the One placing all rings under Christ, so He Himself must have a superior role. “The Son Himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things in subjection under Him, that God may be all in all.” (v.28)

2. Rev. 13:8

Here John describes Christ as “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (NIV84).”  Therefore, as above, if we are already in agreement that Jesus’ function as the One sent to accomplish the Father’s will, as coming to live and die for the sins of mankind, was a subordinate function, then here the Scriptures tell us this was, in some sense, accomplished before the foundations of the world. This is surely how the saints of the OT could be justified by a forward looking faith in the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) b/c Christ’s mediatory function was already, in some sense, accomplished.  From this we could say Jesus was functionally subordinate before His incarnation.

3. Acts 1:11 (cf. Phil. 2:5-11)

This is, perhaps, less obvious but if we are in agreement, again as above, that Jesus’ function was a subordinate one in His incarnation, then Acts 1:11 tells us that a part of the subordinate function (taking on of flesh) actually continues on to this day (albeit it is now a glorified flesh) b/c we are told that Jesus will “come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”  Therefore, Jesus continues to this day, and until He returns, in His humble, subordinate nature that He took on and we read about in Phil. 2:5-11.  Now yes, Paul tells us in Phil. 2 that b/c of Jesus willingness to do this God “exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him a Name that is above every other” but He does not say that His now glorified body was taken off.  In fact, given what we said in the verse above (Rev. 13:8) it also may not be inaccurate to say that, for Jesus to be “slain before the foundation of the world” that He already had taken on human form, in some sense anyways, in order to be able to be slain.  The point is, however, that Christ still continues in His subordinate form that He “took on” and we read about in Phil. 2, and so we can say that He continues to function in willing subordination to the Father even after He ascended into heaven.

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Harold Lindsell and Charles Woodbridge are quoted as saying,

The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity.  He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul.

This is undoubtedly true.  And yet I trust I have proved (at the very least) that it is entirely acceptable to speak of the eternal functional subordination of the Son (Jesus) to the Father, w/o doing any damage to biblical, Nicene and Chalcedonian understandings of the nature and Person of Christ; the second Person of the Trinity.

Peter’s conundrum: living between the mount of transfiguration and the empty tomb

 

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If you’ve ever had that moment of confusion and disillusionment like Peter Pan’s kids in the Disney movie “Hook”, where someone you love and trust is given the opportunity to rescue both you and themselves, and they can’t (or won’t), then you understand the apostle Peter very well.  If you’ve ever cried, “Why not here God?” or “Why not now?” or “For me?” or “This time?” then you understand the apostle Peter’s deep struggle within the story of Easter.

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Speaking out of the unshakable assurance he has now in the strength of Christ, and seeking to corroborate that truth, Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:16-18 of his eyewitness experience of Jesus’ transfiguration. This was where Jesus, for all intents and purposes, ripped open His robe to reveal a big red “S” (or maybe a “J”) underneath, showing His inner circle of disciples that He was, in fact, God in the flesh.  This experience followed shortly after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ; the Messiah, and it must have confirmed in his mind, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus truly was who Peter had said He was.

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But all of this probably only heightened and intensified what must have felt like a hard sucker-punch to the stomach not many days afterwards, as Peter stared into the eyes of armed men and guards led by Judas Iscariot in the garden of Gethsemane.  When we read in John 18 that Peter – likely recalling that very moment on the mount of transfiguration – boldly steps forward and attacks one of the guards, cutting off his ear, only to watch in shock and amazement the all powerful God-man Jesus, whose glory he had witnessed … do nothing; to tell him to put away his sword; to look now so … so, weak and helpless.

This alone must have utterly shattered all of Peter’s confidence and trust in what he thought he knew about Jesus.  But still we see, only a few verses later, Peter huddled by a fire of coals in the high priest’s courtyard, clinging to the vestiges of hope in what he had seen on the mountain, as well as all that he had seen Jesus do before this; surely hoping against hope that now Jesus will finally burst once again from his fleshly shell and blow outta that place.  But once again Peter’s hopes are disappointed.  And more than that, now people begin to press in on him; circling around him like sharks with blood in the water … and Jesus is nowhere to be seen.

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Peter is now swirling in a whirlwind of questions and doubts; fully mind-jacked and devastated at Jesus unwillingness to show His power now and rescue both of them, or worse … unable to save them?  The fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s three denials only throws more wood on the fire burning inside Peter’s heart and mind, and in bitter distress and consternation, Peter runs full out into the black of night; he’s already in pitch black internally, so he may as well be there externally as well.

And then we hear, or see, nothing of Peter until after Jesus’ death; huddling in a locked room and trying to figure out where they all are supposed to go now from here.  He is not present at Jesus’ crucifixion; the sight of this would likely send him into madness.

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In sermons and counselling sessions and hard conversations, we always jump quickly to say how renewed and joyous Peter was at the news that Jesus was alive; that all his dashed hopes and dreams were still very much intact; that he had been right after all about who Jesus was, and he hand’t needed to be so afraid or so full of doubt.

But what we lose in getting too quickly to that good news is that, for many many people today, this side of eternity or Christ’s return, we still – like Peter in this moment – are living between the mount of transfiguration and the empty tomb.  And we can’t see the end.  And we can’t discern God’s hand.  And our fingers are slipping from the last branch of hope.

For of course, Peter was right about Jesus.  Peter was utterly safe in this moment of his disorientation and this winter of his discontent … but, he didn’t know that he was.

And whether it’s you, or someone you’re ministering to, we must always deal with people where they are, not where they should be.  In this place where Romans 8:22-23 piercingly reminds us,

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only creation, but we ourselves, groan inwardly as we wait for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.”

(I love how honest the Scriptures are about suffering and pain in this life!)

But then, in that difficult place, the hope we find, or offer, in this “middle-earth” is found in the very next verses of Romans.  In vss. 24-26 we read this,

“Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

and then

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

Hebrews 11:1 adds that,

“faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Jesus tells Thomas as his own doubts are overcome,

“Have you believed because you have seen Me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”

The most telling words, as it relates to all of this, are what Jesus tells Peter in John 13:7, before any of this confusion begins, and He surprises/offends Peter’s ideas of “what should be” again by the washing of his feet, and saying,

“What I do now you do not understand, but thou shalt know hereafter.”

The hope we can cling to, or extend to others, in the groaning; the doubts, and the pitch black, we can learn here from Peter: Jesus was no less in control of, or caring for, Peter in this moment, than He was before, or after, this crisis fell upon him.  But the experience of that hope is only found as a child, holding all the more tightly to the hand of their Father in the darkness, trusting that He will be faithful – even there – to lead them through.  The hope to be found (or offered) is in trusting His sovereign control of all things, even in the groaning, hard places.  For He is no less in control there, then He is when the path is smooth and easy.

“When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace.  In every high and stormy gale, my Anchor holds within the veil.”

 

Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 3 – Hell “lite” and an alternative viewpoint from Matthew 20

 

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Ok, so I’m not going to do a post 2.5.  I feel I’ve already given more time to this subject than I have to give presently and, as has been been mentioned, this is certainly not a pressing, closed-handed issue worth much more time anyways.  So, in the interests of closure and summary, I will finish out the topic for now with this last post from the series.

For interest’s sake, I would say in brief as it relates to the parable of the the unfaithful servant in Luke 12:35-48, there is a strong case, both from a plain reading of the text as well as a number of the commentaries I’ve read, that Jesus does not answer Peter’s query in Luke 12:41 b/c He is, in fact, speaking to Peter and the disciples particularly, yet with implications for all.  Judas Iscariot could be seen in vss. 45-46; perhaps Peter’s anguish at his betrayal is in view in vs. 47 while Thomas’ doubt and rebuke could be seen in vs. 48. Beyond this, neither Jesus’ hearers nor the original readers of this would have likely understood a meaning of degrees of punishment in the afterlife from Jesus’ words.

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Hell “lite”:

The first thing to say in summary is that the whole discussion of degrees of punishment in hell has the very real danger of actually promising some degree of hope to the “average sinner” who doesn’t sin/rebel against the God of the universe “too much.”  To such as these, even presenting the idea of degrees of punishment in hell could, in reality, offer out some unrealistic (and unbiblical) hope for some kind of a “hell lite” which – although it surely isn’t nice – is more like having to eat eternally at Denny’s instead of the Ritz Carlton, than it is a lake of eternal fire and eternal separation from God and all His common grace currently bestowed upon us.  The latter is as unthinkable as the bible presents it; the former may not actually be seen as that bad as long as I get to thumb my nose to God in this life and do what I please while I’m here now.

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 The levelling effect of Matthew 20:1-16

The last thing to say in summary of my argument can be found in the very familiar parable of the labourers in the vineyard in Matthew 20.  Here we see those who begin very early, and labour much for the Master throughout the day receiving the very same wage/payment as those who accomplish only a little (comparatively) and for only the last hour of the day.  Jesus says very plainly that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Now, surely, one thing being highlighted here is the generosity of God to all, but it must also be stated that – though the labourers who began first clearly believed they would receive a greater reward/payment/benefit than those who had accomplished much less and worked for a much shorter time – they are all given the very same, previously stated/agreed upon payment.  If we understand this in an eschatological sense, this may indeed be saying that there are not, in fact, degrees of reward in heaven, but that we all receive the One, true Reward which is Christ Himself (and truly, what more could be given or desired to possess than Him?).  This would also be consistent with Jesus teaching in Luke 17:7-10.

The corollary, then, as it relates to our subject at hand, would simply be that – irregardless of one’s “labours” in defiance and rebellion of their Creator and Lord, the “payment/reward” for their labour is also one and the same for all.  This would be consistent with Paul’s teaching in Rom. 6:23,

“For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He does not say that the wages/payment for a few sins is death but that the wages for a lot of sin, or really bad sins, is extra death; nor does he state that the reward for obedient trust in Christ is anything more, or less, than eternal life with Him.

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Now, believe me, I’m with you totally in saying that, even writing those last few paragraphs pushes BIG buttons inside my head and my heart as well as activating my inner-lawyer (as Paul Tripp call him).  “Objection!  That’s not fair!” I complain.  “How can someone who’s lived a basically good life but just rejected Christ, get the same punishment as a Hitler or a Stalin or some serial killer?!  That is not just!”

Well, the first thing we have to admit is … Seriously?! You wanna say that “all” someone did was “just” reject Christ?  Secondly, while applying verses like Rom. Romans 9:20-21 to our understanding of justice in this life, we need to be finally brought to reverent silence before passages like Rom. 11:33-36:

“Oh, the depth and the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counsellor? Or who has given Him a gift that He might be repaid?  

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever.  Amen.” [emphasis mine]

The parable in Matthew 20 gives the same sobering answer to the cries for justice, as we see it a least, in both the positive and the negative sense:

“Jesus, how can you offer the same payment/reward to those who are more deserving of punishment or more deserving of extra reward?”  The gavel He swings down in Matthew 20 to both questions is,

“Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to Me?  Or do you begrudge My generosity?”

Selah.

A Dangerous Calling: book review

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The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  As a pastor just entering into pastoral ministry, I found Paul Tripp’s book “A Dangerous Calling” to be a pound of prevention, as well as cure, all rolled into one.

It’s nearly impossible to truly anticipate the kind of pressures and temptations one will face in pastoral ministry when you’ve just left the starting line.  Also, like you often see with youth, there can be a kind of naive confidence (arrogance even) when you’re just leaving the dock and sailing out into the ocean of church-work.

So, from my own place in life, “A Dangerous Calling” is a series of large, blinking, neon signs, pointing out areas of danger and disaster that many other pastors have had to discover the hard way.  It would be foolish for anyone entering the pastorate (or any professional calling for that matter) to not learn from, and sit under, the wise, collective counsel of those who have been around the block more times than they can count anymore.

I’ve also, however, had the great blessing of reading through this book with a number of other seasoned pastors.  The strength and breadth of this book is that – by their own testimony – this same book is also a surgeon’s scalpel, a diagnostic tool, and a lighthouse in the storm, to call those long into their ministries and out in the deeps of the ocean, back to fidelity to their calling as well as encouraging them along the way that they are not alone in their struggles.

The book itself is divided into three main sections:

1. Examining Pastoral Culture – I found this to be the most formative to me as a new pastor about dangers that can strike right from the beginning.  The one that comes to mind most, and which was convicting to me, is how theological knowledge does not necessarily dictate one’s level of spiritual maturity.

2. The Danger of Losing you Awe (Forgetting who God is)

3. The Danger of Arrival (Forgetting who You are)

These next two sections lay out some of the major pitfalls and land mines that Paul Tripp has either experienced himself or seen countless times as he listens to and counsels other pastors.  This was most helpful to me in thinking about how I can prepare now so as to avoid these very real and present dangers in my future ministry.  one thing that came to mind was how helpful it would be for pastors to read through this book with their wives; with them being the closest person to you, it would serve you both well for your wife to know what she should be looking out for in your life and ministry.

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The sum is, if you are just thinking about entering into pastoral ministry/seminary or if you’ve been pastoring for the past 30+ years, this book is about you and for you.  I would highly recommend “A Dangerous Calling” to anyone in either of these places in life.

* I received a review e-copy of this book from Crossway

Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 2 – Leviticus 20 and different punishments for different sins

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In the David Fincher film “Seven” (a troublingly brilliant film I would recommend cautiously, and never pastorally) we see detectives seeking to find a psychopathic killer who is carrying out ghastly murders on people he sees to be guilty of the seven deadly sins.  One such unfortunate victim – a man he deems guilty of the sin of sloth – is kept in a room and tortured every day for an entire year, all the while still being kept alive.  When the two detectives find him, still alive, and get him to the hospital, the doctor says these words to the detectives,

He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take; and he still has Hell to look forward to.”

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In the last post I considered the argument from Matthew 11 that Jesus was teaching degrees of punishment in hell by describing hell as more “tolerable” for some than for others.  I laid out the case there that, perhaps, the tolerable-ness of hell had to do with one’s experience of hell based on their level of opportunity/revelation beforehand, and not on any differing degree of punishment.

Here now in the second post, I want to consider a second argument:

Argument #2: The different punishments for different sins in the Mosaic law,  demonstrate that there will be degrees of punishment in hell.

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A cursory read of Leviticus shows God laying out his laws for life, holiness and priestly service (among other things) in Ch. 1-19, with Ch. 20 making a decided shift to describing some of the punishments God requires Israel to carry out for breaking those laws.  The point that those who see degrees of punishment in hell draw out from here is that God deals with different sins differently.  It’s not simply death for every offence of the law.  One receives death, while one receive a sentence of childlessness; one is burned by fire and one is cut off from the people.  This is also not, it should be noted, by any means the only place where we see God laying out different punishments for different sins in the OT law.  The implication, it is said, we can clearly draw from these, and other passages, is that God does not punish all sins equally.  On this point I would actually agree up and to the point of conceding that God certainly does command His people to punish the differing sins present among them differently.  The question needs to be asked immediately though, “Is it reasonable and necessary to extrapolate from these different punishments God commands His people to carry out, a corresponding truth statement that would say God Himself punishes people differently in hell?”

The answer, I believe, is found in answering the corresponding question:

What is the purpose of the law?

Paul tells us in Romans 7:7 that the law is what reveals sin to us. He says earlier in Romans 5:20 that the law also came to “increase the trespass” (and by that statement, and in that context, I take that to mean the trespass of Adam).  So the law was meant to reveal sin to us (just as Adam broke the first “law” of God in the garden of Eden) as well as to increase or magnify the trespass, which I take to mean to show us more and more of both how very opposite we are from the holy perfection of God, as well as, increasingly, how much in we are in need of a Saviour.  The point is, the law – and its corresponding punishments – has a very specific purpose.

And yet, right after simplifying the whole discussion of rewards and punishments, and stating simply that continuing in sin gives you death but that receiving the free gift of God gives you eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord in Romans 6:23 (the chapter divisions are not inspired BTW) Paul says, “Or do you not know brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?

Now, there are clear spiritual implications for the Christian and the non-Christian here – yes – but I think it is reasonable to conclude that God may also be saying here that the pattern of the law, and its corresponding punishments – this way of operating towards Him and others that He handed down to Moses – was intended for our own temporal existence/history alone.  This would make extrapolations from this text, beyond this life, about the way God punishes sin Himself, spurious and moot.  Of course, this does’t mean for a moment that God doesn’t punish sin.  But if the way God commands His people to operate before Him and with others is said to only be in effect, lit. “binding”, as long as we are living, it stands to reason that the way He operates towards sinners once they’ve died, i.e are not living, cannot be deduced from the way He commands us to operate towards sin while we are still living.

The simplest illustration I can think of is as it relates to sexuality and my kids.  Right now, as children (and unmarried all the more) I have a very clear way I command and expect them to operate towards sexuality, viz. they are to have zero, none, zip, nada sexual relations with anyone, and I will also lay out various consequences for them (beyond the natural) should my children disobey that command.  Yet I would state, even now, that this command/law is intended for as long as they remain unmarried, and that once they are married, the way I operate towards them as it relates to that command/law will look very different (ala. Romans 7:1).  Given all that information, you would look foolish to say that, based on my former command/law, I would continue to operate in the same way toward my daughters and sexuality as I do now, once they are married, and that I would also seek to punish them in the same way.  When they marry, the command/law no longer defines the way I operate towards them.  I think this is also how Romans 7:1 gives reasonable doubt to the premise that the way God commands His people to punish different sins differently in the OT law, defines a pattern for us to see how God will punish some people more in hell than others.

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Which leads us back to my opening illustration.  In no way do I take my theological cues from films, and yet the principle displayed in the film is sound: the punishments handed down to this unfortunate man for his “sins” are clearly distinct from the imminent punishment of hell that this man is about to – in the mind of this doctor anyways – experience.  I’ll explain more of what I think that means in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say for now, I see hell itself as the supreme and final display of God’s justice on all the unrighteous, unqualified or quantified, and in and of itself.

There will, actually, be a post 2.5 before my conclusion in post 3, as some have enquired how this all relates to the parable of the servants in Luke 12:35-48.  This is what I will seek to deal with in the next post.

Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 1 – Matthew 11 and the “tolerable-ness” of hell

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Are there degrees of punishment in hell?

No.

Ok, maybe I should qualify that with a, “No, i don’t think so” because, according to some folks (*ahem* “Love Wins” promo video), unless I’ve been to hell myself I can’t say anything authoritatively about what happens there.

So the real question then is, “Does the bible teach that there are degrees of punishment in hell?”

There are three main [here summarized] arguments I’ve heard that would say, “Yes, the bible does teach this” that I want to interact with over the next few posts,  They are as follows:

1. In Matt. 11:20-24 Jesus talks about people in the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and  Capernaum finding hell less “tolerable” on the day of judgment than the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom.  Therefore hell will be more severe for some than for others.

2. The punishments laid out for sin in Leviticus clearly reveal that different sins are to be punished with greater or lesser consequences, so this clearly reinforces the idea that there are differing levels of punishment in hell.

3. The bible speaks about greater and lesser rewards in heaven (2 Cor. 5:10, 1 Cor. 3:12-14, Matt. 16:27), and so, conversely, there must be greater and lesser degrees of punishment in hell.

*Note: The third argument is, in my view, a bit of a non sequitur and does not have the logical strength (on the level of saying, “Well, hell is a lake of fire and very hot so obviously we know that heaven is very cold.”) nor the biblical support to stand on its own without factoring in the other two, so I’ll spend my effort responding to the first two arguments in the next few posts.

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Argument #1: Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 11 teaches degrees of punishment in hell


The first reason I disagree with this interpretation of Matthew 11:20-24 is because the plain reading of the text actually says nothing about greater or lesser punishments in hell (this is assuming we can infer that “Judgement Day” is meant to be metonymy for the great white throne judgement), but refers only to subjective experience, viz. how “tolerable” it will be for them.

The second reason I disagree with this interpretation is because of the reason Jesus says that it will be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom than for these unrepentant cities of Chrorazin and Capernaum.  Jesus says to these last two cities, “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (vs.21) and later, “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (vs.23).

So the reason, according to Jesus, that the day of judgement will be less tolerable for Chorazin and Capernaum is that, based on the amount of revelation they had (as compared to Tyre, Sidon and Sodom) they are then more responsible for their un-repentant, un-believing attitudes toward God.  But it must be stated, in light of the first point, that one’s experience of something does not, in any way, mean that the thing being experienced is different in any discernible way.

The way I see that working itself out is this:

Let’s say there are earthquake/tsunami warnings being posted all over – news paper, radio, television, etc. – and people are being told to evacuate Vancouver.  But b/c I live on higher ground in Kerrisdale, I feel like my family and I will be ok regardless, and so I don’t pack up and leave.  Consequently, the earthquake comes and flattens my building and, tragically, one of my children is killed.  But, let’s say at the same time, there is another family in my apartment building that is brand new to Vancouver and doesn’t speak a lick of English.  And so, they also don’t respond in time to the information being given to them (though, of course, for a very different reason) and their family also loses a child in the disaster.

The question we need to ask is, “Is the result of not heeding the warnings and evacuating Vancouver any different for either family?”  Answer: No.  We both lost a child and it is, by itself, equally tragic for both of us.  And yet, the experience of it for me is devastatingly less tolerable because I heard and understood the warnings and didn’t take the needed action to protect my family.  I had a greater responsibility to act based on what I saw and heard, and though the result is identical for both families, my experience of that is understandably less tolerable.

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This is, i believe, what Jesus is describing for the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Capernaum, viz. the judgement you receive on that last Day is going to be monumentally less tolerable for you.  And it will be that way, not b/c your punishment is going to be more severe than it will be for those other cities that didn’t repent either, but b/c the signs performed in your cities testified to Who it was that was in your presence (the promised Messiah) and so you therefore had a greater responsibility to act based on what you saw and heard.

Jesus is basically saying it will be like that moment in the film The Usual Suspects when the US customs agent, Dave Kujan, discovers that he just let the most notorious criminal in the United States (Keyser Söze) walk out the front door of the police station after holding him and interrogating him for hours, never to be found again.  The result is the same – you didn’t have him in custody before and you don’t have him in custody now – and yet the experience of not having him in custody now is all the less tolerable b/c he didn’t respond accordingly to what was staring him in the face and now it’s too late to respond.

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Jesus is not describing degrees of punishment in hell – at least not in Matt. 11:20-24 – but rather, the different experiences individuals will have in response to their judgement based on their responsibility to act in light of the information they had in front of them.

In the next post, I will seek to deal with the second argument for degrees of punishment in hell based on the legal code laid out in Leviticus.

Cake baking, picture taking and same-sex union making: Oh my!

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Would Jesus bake a cake for a gay wedding?

Should a photographer be forced to violate their conscience and have to offer services for an event they are morally opposed to?

These, amoung others, are some of the questions being batted around cyberspace and spilling much e-ink these days.  And, at the risk of getting a few punches myself, i thought i’d throw my own hat in the ring and offer a few thoughts of my own to consider.

To begin, as a friend of mine said earlier today regarding all this, i too feel sympathy for those who feel they are being forced to act against their consciences and make themselves complicit (in their view) with acts they deem to be morally wrong.  It doesn’t seem fair after all.  Why can’t these patrons just find another cake baker or picture taker?  Why make it a big legal battle and, potentially, ruin a hard-earned business for someone acting sincerely according to their conscience?

One particular article/post responding to all the hurly-burly caught my attention.  As i interacted with the author in the comment area, one point he made in particular was very clarifying for my own thinking on the issue.

I had stated that in his article, he seemed to be attaching a moral character to cakes and flowers that simply did not exist by stating that creating either one of those things for a same-sex union made the maker of that cake, or arranger of those flowers, complicit somehow in the union they felt morally in conflict with.  In his response he replied,

If it was just about cakes and flowers, I would agree. But it’s about the use of gifts and talents to create special works of art for purposes that we deem to be immoral.”

Now, applying biblical logic to that argument, would that not, necessarily, make God Himself complicit in acts He says are against His revealed will in the bible?  For has God not also used His own creative powers to create (and sustain!) creatures of whom He surely knows (infinitely) will be used (or use themselves) for sinful purposes/ends?  Therefore, looking at it this way, this also removes, i think, the argument that it is more knowledge of how a creation is to be used that is the real issue of conscience in these widely publicized legal battles.

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In the end, i don’t think i know what the right answer is.  No one will stand before me at the end of time and give any account for anything.  But i offer two ideas of my own in closing for consideration:

1. In Matthew 5:43-48 we read,

““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In the example of Christ while He lived on earth, “loving your enemies” certainly was never about winking at sin or lowering the bar of holiness.  But what it was (to a large degree) was about serving, and entering into people’s lives where they were at (surely, with the purpose of not leaving them there), and (ultimately) laying down His life for those who were His “enemies” (cf. Rom. 5:10) to ransom them for God (Rev. 5:9).

So, given that, what then does loving your enemies/those who hate you and persecute you look like for a Christian baker, for example, in a secular, fallen world?

2. In an interview at the Veritas forum, Tim Keller said something very insightful that i think would also apply to these type of situations.  He said something to the effect of, [my paraphrase] “Yes, the bible says homosexuality is a sin.  But the bible also says to love your neighbour.  And there are some Christians who take the biblical imperatives to love your neighbour very seriously, but they ignore what the bible says about the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour.  And there are also others who take the moral imperatives against homosexuality very seriously, but who also ignore the command to love their neighbours.  And both are wrong in the end”

So, when faced with these very real moral and ethical dilemmas in life, and for the Christian in particular, i think we would do well to ask ourselves:

1. What would loving my enemies look like in this situation?

2. Does loving my enemies mean surrendering my own moral/ethical beliefs about any given subject?  Did it mean that for Jesus?

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Selah.