Showing our hand: a new frontier from the pulpit

Showing our hand

We’ve all experienced it: that freeing, liberating feeling that an honest confession from a friend brings, which causes you to un-tense and say, “… Oh!  So I’m not the freak I thought I was? Thank goodness!”  It does’t matter as much what the subject is.  Call it “misery loves company” or “true confessions”, there is something about that kind of vulnerability from a fellow struggler that brings validity, and also hope, to the listener, in the same way that seeing your opponents’ poker hand across the table brings relief from worry about your own bad hand.  And yet – if we all know the hope and camaraderie that comes from such vulnerable confessions in our our everyday experience – why is it that we are so reticent to offer such comfort from the pulpit?

Because – conversely – there is something so crushing and discouraging about seeing someone do something so well which you fail at daily; maybe even hourly.  It’s the kid who learns piano quickly while you continue to struggle learning simple scales. It’s the guy who easily gets ripped abs in weeks while you work tirelessly and diet for years with no discernible result. Rather than inspiring, these examples usually only bring about despair.

And yet what baffles me is that – even knowing and experiencing that same discouragement in our own day to day lives – we can still believe that presenting a polished, filtered version of ourselves from the pulpit, will still inspire people to Christ-like character, more than the truth will.

Let me say it plainly: it doesn’t.

The Culprit

          How we can do this as preachers is so much easier and deceptive than you’d think.  Consider:

                    – every time you present a real-life illustration where you do “just the right thing” at “just the right moment”;

– every time you do application negatively without including some example of how you too are tempted to do (or actually do) the very same thing yourself;

– every time you do application positively without showing how that same truth has impacted your own life,

Every time you do that (intentionally or not) what you show to people, is an unattainable, crushing picture of reality.  And I know this pressure to present a “polished” reality from the pulpit first hand b/c – every time I seek to personally apply a truth from the bible to myself – I wonder, “What will people think of me if I reveal that?”

Yet, as usual, Tim Keller said it so well when he stated, “Christian communicators must show that we remember (or at least understand) very well what it is like not to believe.

The Christ-exalting/self-depracating choice

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the apostle Paul reminds us that God’s power is actually shown to be most strong when we are seen to be most weak.  He actually says, in the latter part of that verse, that he will even boast about his weaknesses, so that the power of Christ will be seen – even more – as the superior power it is.  And, of course, we see Paul doing just that in his recorded ministry; even referring to himself as the least of the apostles b/c of his past (1 Cor. 15:9) and the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Somehow, Paul believed so strongly in what God said to him about the way his own weaknesses showed the superior strength of Christ all the more brightly, that he didn’t shrink back from really showing people those weaknesses.  In the end, he was simply living out the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30 .

Showing our hand

In 1 Peter 3:1-3 the apostle Paul exhorts fellow under-shepherds to be “examples to the flock.”  The question that needs to be asked at the end of the day is, “examples of what?” Are we to be examples of moral conquest and overcoming of sin alone? Or are we – much more so – to be examples of the reality of an imperfect life lived out before a holy righteous God who has qualified us, by His grace alone, to be a part of His family?

My plea to preachers of God’s word is simple: be examples, first, of how God has changed you; how He continues to impact, inspire, and correct you. This – as I see it it – is what truly helps people see the gospel for the power it is.  Not –  as Paul says – that we have already attained it, or been made perfect; but that we are striving for it, right alongside the same people we are preaching to about it.  Rather than weakening people’s idea of God and His strength, it will place you (rightly) directly alongside the man or woman in the pew, who is presently struggling to believe/apply/hope in what you are proclaiming anyways. That picture of a co-struggler – in the end – is infinitely more hopeful and inspiring to Christ-like character. And isn’t this what we are all are seeking to inspire in our flock anyways?

The only roadblock, then, to showing our hand from the pulpit is: we need to truly believe that it is more inspiring to the people we’re preaching to.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:5-7 ESV)

Christ and the Law: the triumph of grace over effort

CHRIST AND THE LAW

I’ve always loved the book of Galatians.  There are few other books in the bible that demonstrate so clearly the disparity between earned righteousness and gifted righteousness as this letter from the apostle Paul to the church at Galatia.  But in the same way that we continue to desire McDonalds food even after seeing Supersize Mewhy do we so often default back to the treadmill of trying to earn God’s favour when we know we already have it completely through Christ?  Why do we keep trying to earn what is already ours?

It’s quite possible, of course, that one might continue trying to earn grace because they have not yet truly received it,  but Paul is not primarily addressing that group in his letter to the Galatians.  He is writing to a church of men and women who have (presumably) already received and experienced that saving grace, but who are now tempted to go back to law keeping to maintain it (improve on it?).

Paul’s impassioned reminder to them is, “All who rely on the works of the law [for salvation] are under a curse.” (Gal. 3:10, ESV) and, “No one is justified before God by the law.” (Gal. 3:11, ESV)  He bases that statement on the truth that, in order to be justified before God by the law keeping, one must, “abide by all the things written in the book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10, ESV)  All of them!  Jesus taught this same truth when He was carrying out His earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 5:19-20).

And if you’ve ever been in that boot camp of trying to earn God’s favour (or perhaps are presently there) you can probably still remember the taste of dirt in your mouth as you fell on your face again and again and again.  It’s the inevitable result of what I’ve now heard a number of preachers refer to as “confusing our justification with our sanctification.”

John Bunyan captured the utter futility of trying to earn God’s favour by keeping the law masterfully in his book Pilgrim’s Progress.  Christian’s friend Faithful recounts to him this interaction:

Now, when I had got above half-way up, I looked behind me, and saw one coming after me, swift as the wind; so he overtook me just about the place where the settle stands … So soon as the man overtook me, it was but a word and a blow; for down he knocked me, and laid me for dead. But when I was a little come to myself again I asked him wherefore he served me so. He said because of my secret inclining to Adam the First. And with that he struck me another deadly blow on the breast, and beat me down backward; so I lay at his foot as dead as before. So when I came to myself again I cried him mercy: but he said, I know not how to show mercy; and with that he knocked me down again. (Bunyan, 1998 p. 93-4)

Christian then tells his friend Faithful, “That man that overtook you was Moses. He spareth none; neither knoweth he how to shew mercy to those that transgress the law.” (Bunyan, 1998)

Man’s effort could never achieve God’s favour.  For since the sin of Adam, even the best of our efforts are tainted with sin the way a tone deaf person taints even the most beautiful of songs.

The gospel way

In the midst of his pummelling by Moses (the law) however, Faithful recounts in his tale this important detail:  he says, “He had doubtless made an end of me, but that one came by and bid him forbear.”  Christian inquires as to who came to his aid, and Faithful replies, “I did not know him at first: but as he went by, I perceived the holes in his hands and in his side: Then I concluded that he was our Lord.”(Bunyan, 1998)

The great hope of the gospel is that in Jesus, grace triumphs over effort.  Paul says in Gal. 3:13, “Christ redeem us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -“.  In 2 Cor. 5:21 he expands on this by saying, “For our sake, God made Him [Jesus] to be sin [the helpless state of lawbreakers before a holy God] who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  The Scriptures are clear that the penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23) and so this, then, is how Jesus freed us from the curse of the law: by becoming a curse.  Paul completes Gal. 3:13 with, “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'”

In other words – to use Bunayn’s terms – Jesus bids Moses forbear his pummelling of us, and instead, takes that pummelling upon Himself, to the point of death.

The way of the flesh

The favour of God that we could never achieve ourselves, then, has been fully procured by Christ and credited to our account.  To understand this, just imagine setting up a treadmill in the middle of an olympic racetrack.

treadmill on racetrack

The gun goes off and we begin running on the treadmill, while Jesus actually runs on the track and is victorious in the race.  Running on a treadmill in the middle of a racetrack represents all human efforts to win God’s favour – it achieves nothing (Is. 64:6).  Jesus’ running and completion of the race represents Jesus’ single effort – it achieves everything (Heb. 10:14)!  The incomprehensibility of the gospel message, is that Jesus then takes His gold medal and places it over our neck when we come to Him in faith and repentance.  His victory becomes ours (Gal. 4:4-5).

What Paul is trying to communicate in his letter to the Galatians – using that metaphor – is, really, “The race has already been won for you!  Why would you ever try and get back on that same treadmill again?”

Every time we try to climb back on that treadmill, we deny the truth of the gospel.  Paul says earlier in Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the [keeping of] the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

So how do we keep off that treadmill?  Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful:

1. Keep yourself daily in the word of God: It is filled, cover to cover, with the same reminder Paul gives to the Galatians, viz. you can’t, but God can.

2. Intimate and honest conversation with the God (prayer): He saved you by His grace alone. He loves to unplug the treadmill for us.

3. Honest and open conversation with other believers (community):  Here is one of many places where the body of Christ can remind us of truths we already know and help us climb off that treadmill to nowhere.

4. Print out J. D. Greear’s gospel prayer and post it somewhere you will see it often:  The first stanza of the prayer is particularly relevant to treadmill running.  He reminds us to pray, “In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I can do that would make You love me less.”  I need that reminder often.

Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke (treadmill?) of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

Jesus echoes, Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

 Grace triumphs over effort.

Every lofty opinion: Preaching that prepares for Monday

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As evangelical preachers, we say that the word of God is our sole authority for all matters of life and doctrine (Prov. 30:5-6) and that we can hold to that belief because the One who ultimately wrote that word to us is also true (Romans 3:4).  My question is whether or not we end up teaching the exact opposite of that on Sunday morning, simply by the way we interact with the controversial issues of our day?

 We do that, I think, when we are teaching on the questions and “lofty opinions” of our day, and give in to the temptation to either hedge our bets or, worse yet, knowingly present opinions that oppose what we believe to be orthodox, in their weakest forms. Consider a pastor who leans toward a Complementarian position, but who teaches a mediating view on biblical eldership to avoid conflict with the strong Egalitarian voices in his church.  Or a pastor who presents a view that homosexuality is always and only a personal choice when teaching a biblical sexual ethic.

Is this truly humility? An admission that we simply don’t have omniscience?  Or is it, rather the knocking down of straw men, to make ourselves and our congregations feel better, and to conceal the truth that – while we may doctrinally hold to the authority of Scripture –  functionally we are as liberal as the “liberals” we condemn?

In his excellent book entitled Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson describes the fallacy of an Appeal to Selective Evidence as, “so selective a use of evidence that other evidence has been illegitimately excluded.”  He then adds,

“As a general rule, the more complex and/or emotional the issue, the greater the tendency to select only part of the evidence, prematurely construct a grid, and so filter the rest of the evidence through the grid that it is robbed of any substance.” (p.90)

The fallacy is easy to fall into, particularly when one is faced with a topic or a question where the opposing opinion has strong emotional appeal or enjoys wide support within the prevailing culture you are in.  The temptation towards straw-man-building and deck-stacking can be very strong.

But we must decide as preachers – before we are ever even confronted with the temptation – not to give in.  This strategy for overcoming an opposing viewpoint is, at best, only a temporary, short lived victory and, at worst, setting up our congregations for greater defeat (as well as greater distrust of us) in the future when our facile arguments are shown to be what they are.  In other words, we’re not “equipping the saints” in an Eph. 4 sense at all by winning the battle on a Sunday morning, only to leave them to the wolves on Monday.

As ever, Tim Keller is helpful here in giving us a strategy to interact with opposing viewpoints on a Sunday morning in a way that will actually educate and equip your people to head into their work/school week on Monday.  He says in his book Centre Church in a section entitled “Gospel Polemics” (p.372-3),

1. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.

2. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.

3. Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.

4. Seek to persuade, not antagonize–but watch your motives!

5. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.

 To simplify, Keller is exhorting preachers to interact with opposing viewpoints both in their strongest form as well as in a way that those who hold that view point would say, “Yes!  That’s exactly what I believe.”  Only then are we truly teaching on that subject and equipping our congregations for Monday morning.

Paul says of his ministry in 2 Cor. 10 that the weapons we fight with are not of this world and that they have divine power to, “destroy strongholds” and to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5, ESV)  He had such confidence in the word of God (“knowledge of God”) and the message of the gospel (Romans 1:16) that he could confidently stand before Athenian scholars (Acts 17) or kings (Acts 26), certain that the Scriptures were more than sufficient to stand up against any opposing view or opinion raised against them.

As ministers of that same gospel, may we have Paul’s confidence in the strength of the word of God.  Poor logic and shoddy argumentation when interacting with the “lofty opinions” of our day, only belie the true level of our confidence in the Scriptures, and also teach the people God has put under our care to have the same lack of confidence.

My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”  James 3:10

The psychology of oppression: reaping what we’ve sown

The psychology of oppression

After telling us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”, the apostle Paul states plainly in Galatians 6:7

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows that will he also reap.”

And as I consider the recent events in the USA regarding Michael Brown and Eric Garner, for the first time today I read those words from Paul and connected them with Moses’ words in Exodus 20:5, that speak of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation …”

I’m not interested in armchair-lawyering the justice (or lack of justice) that resulted from the criminal investigations that followed both these incidents.  I’m also not interested in trying to speculate or prove that these deaths were racially motivated; the ones that ultimately know the real answer to that question are Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo and God alone.

What interests me here is a deeper question behind the questions of excessive force, choke holds, and the effectiveness of the justice system: a question of origins.

A case study

We’ve become all too familiar with terrible stories about the cycle of domestic abuse and the women/children who are trapped in them.  It’s heartbreaking to hear about and, undoubtedly devastating to live through.  And looking from the outside, as we see these battered and abused women continuing to stay in these destructive relationships, we often ask ourselves “Why don’t they just leave?” or “Why would they continue to tolerate such behaviour?”

But if you think about the origins of this cycle of abuse, it’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that no boyfriend or husband starts out beating up on/being physically violent with his partner, on the first date.  Likely, a relationship, or a deeper bond of some kind, is built first before any abusive behaviour really starts to materialize.  And once that relationship has been established – even in spite of the physical and mental violence inflicted – it becomes incredibly hard to break free and rise above such circumstances.  And once the woman is freed from that abusive relationship, she often still experiences the trauma/anxiety of it, even when her new relationship now poses none of the same threat.

The case study flipped and re-applied 

My question is: what if someone did start out with abusive behaviour (under which the oppressed person could not get out from under) and then – over time – gradually reduced the abusive behaviour and finally began to act favourably towards the person?  The order of the cycle of abuse has been reversed, yes, but I wonder the effect is not the exact same on the abused person.

The statistics are clear in my view (see pg. 5 from a US research project regarding African Americans in the penal system – image below).

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(http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_Trends_in_Corrections_Fact_sheet.pdf)

Or see this post from Reuters in Canada regarding First Nations peoples in our penal system.

Even if all the history you know of the settlement of America and Canada is from films like “Amistad” and “Last of the Mohicans”, you know, at least, that the hands of our ancestors are stained with a great deal of the blood of both the African American and First Nations peoples.

  Tadeusz Grygier, a doctor of social and criminal psychology wrote in his recent work, “Oppression: a study of social and criminal psychology” which drew from his own experience in Soviet war camps as well as research done with survivors of Nazi concentration camps, found these startling conclusions about the psychology of oppressed people:

– oppression tends to produce an extrapunitive attitude in the oppressed, diverting aggression to external persons and situations

– it leads to psychopathy and crime

– more severe degrees of oppression greatly increase the incidence of crime

(see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2079301/pdf/brmedj03620-0049c.pdf)

Testing the hypothesis

It’s doesn’t explain everything by a long shot.  But if you look at the justice system’s statistics of formerly (some would say still currently) oppressed people groups, and place them alongside Dr. Grygier’s findings, I think it brings up some difficult questions to answer.

It makes me wonder if – although we (as middle class white people anyways) like to say that “racism in C21 is all but dead”, and then base that statement on the fact that the stark horrors of our forefather’s oppression are no longer taking place – it makes me wonder if we’ve really considered the psychology of that former oppression and the effect it still has on future generations?  If the “feeling” of oppression and subjugation has not been passed on from those formerly oppressed generations?  So that now – although the present threat of domination/subjugation has been quelled – the ability to experience the freedom and non-suspicious life we enjoy today in white North America, still feels out of reach?

It makes me wonder if the sins of our forefathers did not create a present day “oppressed psychology” which is also invisible to our eyes, and which helps to create much of the sociological, economic, and educational disparities we see between ethnicities today, and then the resulting criminal behaviour that can follow out of that oppressed mindset?

And if now we are simply reaping what was sown?

The gain of pain: Suffering as preparation for ministry

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We’ve all heard the words and likely said them ourselves many times, “No pain, no gain.”  We get (or should anyways) that most things in life that are worth accomplishing require some degree of effort and struggle in order to achieve them.  But if we default to thinking about that effort and struggle in one particular way only, we can miss an entirely different perspective with massive implications for life and ministry.

If you’re involved at all in pastoral ministry, that default perspective of effort and struggle likely begins with seminary or theological education of some kind.  It then melds into a mixture of personal devotion, sermon prep, and continuing education, all mixed in with the weekly duties of a pastor.  And – no mistake – that is a part of effort and struggle.

But the perspective on effort and struggle that is often missed, or completely passed over, in ministry is one that we actually have no control over whatsoever and that is more than likely one we’d just as soon forget and move on from:

 It is the perspective of pain.

The evidence of gain in pain

C.S Lewis once said in The problem of pain,

“We can ignore even pleasure.  But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

And yet – particularly for the pastor – our past (or even present) pain and struggles are often the very thing we seek to either forget or hide from those we want to minster to.  And I simply wonder if this is not an over-realized understanding of 1 Peter 5:3.  For what is it exactly that we are to be examples of? Moral superiority?  The fiction of “you can do it too if you just try harder like me”?  Or are we not more to be examples of 1 Timothy 1:16; of “redeemed-by-grace-alone sinners” like Paul?  Examples of “you can receive grace just like I have no matter where you’ve come from!”?

As I trace the biblical narratives – over and over again – it is the tools of pain and suffering that God primarily uses, to prepare His truly great ministers for truly great tasks of ministry.  Consider:

Abraham had to suffer under years of childlessness, to leave behind his home land, as well as be commanded to sacrifice what was most precious to him (Isaac), to be prepared to be the father of many nations.

Jacob/Israel had to be exiled from his family and pummelled by Jesus in a wrestling match to be prepared to bear the name Israel.

Joseph suffered the treachery of his brothers and Potiphar’s wife, as well as years of “hard time” in dungeons to be prepared to be the preserver of God’s people in Egypt.

Moses had to suffer under exile from Egypt and Israel as a murderer before God called him to be the one who would then lead Israel out of slavery Egypt.

Joshua had to wander 40 years in the wilderness, and watch every other Israelite but Caleb die in the wilderness before God called him to replace Moses and lead God’s people into the promised land.

Daniel had to suffer exile in Babylon and the threat of becoming kitty-kibble in order to come to the place of leadership he held.

Peter had to suffer under the pride-pummeling guilt and shame of denying his Lord that he had sworn allegiance to (as well as a humiliating breakfast with Him afterwards) to become the “rock” on which Jesus would build His church.

Saul/Paul had to be blinded and humiliated before a murderer of Christians could become the greatest Christian missionary the world had ever known.

Even Jesus had to humble Himself above all others (Phil.2) and take on human flesh, become the Servant of all, and die a humiliating, horrific death, in order to procure the salvation we have in Him.

You seeing a theme yet?

The hermeneutic of gain through pain 

Wes Furlong, in his article for Catalyst, “What makes a leader truly inspiring?” wrote,

“It’s the personal narrative behind their leadership that makes the difference. Inspiring leadership is undeniably biographical. “Why” they lead and “where” they’re going is firmly embedded in what has happened to them. We see the transformation in their lives and the vision that rises from their struggle and find ourselves resonating with their story and joining their journey from what is to what should be.”

We know that the sufferings of the apostle Paul – for example – were more than any average dude could endure in our day and age, let alone his own day and age.  But when we read 2 Cor. 4:17, For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (ESV)”, I wonder if we don’t see that “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” as only a future reality and not a present one as well?  I wonder if Paul is not describing the veritable “X Factor” of ministry as the very thing we so often seek to forget and hide away from others in order to “do ministry”?

I’m not saying we should be those who either a) seek out suffering as some “badge of honour” to flaunt, or b) those who air out their dirty laundry in order to appear “more relevant” to those we minster to.  But what I am saying is that maybe – just maybe – those places and circumstances of your life that you feel are a hinderance to your ministry, might just be the very places God took you through in order to make you an even more effective leader in your ministry than you could have ever been otherwise.

For once you’ve grown under pain and suffering as a leader, you know: it’s not about transparency or vulnerability anymore – it’s not even something you’re trying to “do” that people are drawn to.  It’s just something you are now.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, Who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God [emphasis added]. 2 Cor. 1:3-4 (ESV)

Honorable conduct: living as exiles in the 21st Century

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From the moment we walked in the gates, and until we left, no one spoke more than a few words – there was nothing anyone could say. Touring through Austria in 1994, we had taken a day as a group to visit Mauthausen Concentration camp just outside of Linz, and not far from the Dachau camp.  Just being at that place elicited a whole array of responses, from rage to overwhelming sadness, as I considered the number of people who had taken their last breath within those terrible fences – it was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

While there were certainly many who suffered under the boot of the Third Reich in WWII, most would agree, none suffered so specifically and horrifically as the Jews; a people who – from the 1933 occupation of Germany onward – became progressively and systematically exiled in their own countries and homes.

But if you follow the history, the Nazi regime did not just start loading up Jewish people into trains and sending them off to death camps on day one.  They began, instead, with a propaganda campaign to demonize and dehumanize the Jews in the minds and culture of the German population over time, so that when they did begin carting those same people off in train cars, it would feel less like genocide, and more like deliverance to the deceived minds of the German people.  The campaign was devastatingly successful for the most part.

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(poster reads, “Behind the enemy powers: the Jew”)

There are heroic stories however, amongst the many sad ones, of German people who did not accept the propaganda and – rather than turning in their Jewish neighbours – protected and hid them instead.  The Frank family of Amsterdam (made famous by Anne Frank’s famous diary) is one of those stories.

And one big question that intrigues me from their story is:

What made those German people – surrounded by a culture and a ruling government that was telling them to fear and hate the Jews – see the Frank family differently and act in the exact opposite way towards them?

One answer that seems plausible is that perhaps the Frank family – by simply knowing and living amongst their neighbours in honourable, kind and dependable ways – made the claims of the Nazi propaganda campaign look as ridiculous and mis-informed to them as they do to us today.  The conduct of these exiled Jewish people in the context they lived in, ultimately, made the Nazi propaganda appear implausible and incoherent.

In the book of 1 Peter 2:12,15 we read these words:

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation … For it is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (ESV).”

I don’t mean in any way to suggest either that the Frank family (or any practicing Jewish person) knew and followed this New Testament principle, or that the suffering of Jewish people under the Nazi regime is at all comparable to the plight of 21st Century conservative Evangelicalism; I don’t believe either of those things to be true.  I simply wonder if we can’t extract from the story of the Frank family – living under a country-wide propaganda campaign intended to misrepresent and demonize them – something of the truths that the apostle Peter lays out in 1 Peter 2:12,15 for our own lives today?

For in the Western world, there is also a growing, pervasive propaganda campaign against conservative Evangelicalism.  Its intent is to exile, demonize and misrepresent both the biblical sexual ethic and the people who hold it; to put us forward as a bigoted, closed-minded, homophobic, gay-hating mob chasing down all LBGQT people like the pitch-fork/torch wielding mobs chasing down “witches” in 17th Century Salem.

Now, perhaps we scoff at such a representation and view it as unfair and fantastical.  But I would ask you (and indeed, you must ask yourself): does the way you live your life with your neighbours and within your city, make the claims of this propaganda campaign look implausible to those who know you?

Narrow the question even further: would those within the LGBQT community, who know where you stand on homosexual practice, still find it hard to reconcile the propaganda they hear with what they know of you?  Would they be at all confused and  say to themselves, “Wow!  I know everyone’s telling me that people who say that the bible condemns homosexual practice hate me and want me to go away … but, I don’t see how that could be right because I know my neighbour holds to a biblical view of homosexuality, yet his family were the only ones in the building to help me and my partner move in.  His family has had me into their home for dinner. Our kids play in the park together.  I don’t hate him and it definitely doesn’t seem like he hates me at all either!“?

If not, we have to ask ourselves if the insulating of ourselves against the LBGQT community and our lack of real, true Christ-like engagement with them – all in the name of protecting our children and stewarding the truth – is not actually supporting and solidifying the very propaganda claims we say are unfair and fantastical?

If you really think that the way that Christians who hold to a biblical sexual ethic are portrayed today is foolish, then we are told in God’s word,

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (Ibid.).”

It’s not the whole of what it means to live as an exile in the 21st Century, but it is a very real part of building the context for a faithful presentation of the hope of the gospel.

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!

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.”

goodwill

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.

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.

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?”

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.

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.

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.

yb

Eternal functional subordination within the Trinity: a thesis

Subordinate

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:
submission holds in mma fights

 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.

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.