Happy St. George’s Day


Today is St. George’s Day among Western Christians. It’s celebrated on May 6 by Eastern Christians because they follow the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar. You can read about my namesake here. Here’s the St. George Cross, which was the flag of England before its union with Scotland. George, it turns out, is the patron saint of England, as well as Palestine, interestingly enough.

Sainthood Is Not Pretty (1 Corinthians 4:10-13)


 

Several years ago, I bought a Jesus icon at a Greek Festival near my house. (My interest was artistic, not liturgical.) Since then, I purchased another icon of my namesake, St. George. And I looked into buying antique icons, although so far their expense has priced me out of the market.

The interesting thing about the icons I’ve looked at is the otherworldliness of their subjects. Typically, the saints – whether biblical or traditional – are presented “in glory,” as it were. In my Jesus icon, for example, Jesus is Christos Pantocrator, “Christ Almighty,” the Son of God enthroned with power in heaven. In my St. George icon, the saint battles a ferocious dragon without a drop of sweat, mud, or blood staining either his crimson-and-gold toga or his majestic white stallion.

It seems to me that we American Christians think of saints in a similar way. We pluck them out of the grit and grime of their real-life contexts, slap a halo on their heads, and speak well of their deeds – all from the comfort of our couches, viewing them as pretty icons that adorn our walls.

I revere John Wesley, for example. However, I wouldn’t want to ride with him over thousands of miles of bad English roads, in weather both fair and foul, to preach sermons in the open air to hostile audiences that often threw rotten fruit and stones his way.

I admire Mother Teresa. I wouldn’t want to give up my family, my home, and my comfortable life to clean the sores of dying lepers in the streets of Calcutta, however.

I respect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I wouldn’t want to march to Selma or battle Bull Connor or get thrown in prison or have my house firebombed, however.

Here’s how Paul describes his life and compares it to the Corinthians’ in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13:

We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.

The Corinthians wanted icon-leaders, pictured “in glory,” untainted by blood, sweat, and tears. They wanted pretty leaders to hang on their walls and to converse admiringly about with their friends. But sainthood is not pretty. It wades into the muck of human sin and misery with a shovel of God’s grace and gets to work.

And sainthood is not restricted to an elite few, like Paul and the apostles. The Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1:2). Us too. Do we sit comfortably on our couches admiring icons, or are we ready to wade into the muck?

Wisdom Chaser


Nathan Foster, Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $16.00, 185 pages.

The father Nathan Foster finds at 14,000 feet is none other than Richard J. Foster, author of The Celebration of Discipline and other titles on spiritual formation. It turns out that Richard wasn’t much of a father in Nathan’s early years, at least not from his son’s point of view. He was “a serious, silent ghost.” In rebellion, Nathan started smoking, dabbled in drugs and alcohol, dropped out of school, and otherwise made bad decisions. But when, in his early 20s, Nathan challenged Richard to climb Colorado’s fourteeners with him (i.e., mountains of 14,000 feet elevation or more), they healed old wounds and forged new ties. It’s unclear from the narrative whether Richard changed or whether Nathan gained a new perspective on his dad or both. Whatever the case, this is a powerful story of a son making peace with his father and becoming a better man himself in the process. It was so engrossing a read that I read it in one sitting. I recommend this book highly, especially to fathers and sons who don’t know what to do with one another.

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Rulers or Ruined (1 Corinthians 4:8-10)


 

In 1 Corinthians 4:8-9, Paul paints a portrait of himself and the Corinthians that is a study in bold contrasts.

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings — and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.

Paul portrays the Corinthians as rulers. More specifically, he depicts them with three verbal images. The first image is of a gourmand who has satisfied himself at the table but has food to spare. The second image is of an entrepreneur who has become wealthy beyond daily need. And the third image is of a king who has begun to exercise royal authority.

Paul locates the timeframe of these three images in the present moment. The word already makes this explicit for the first two images. But it is implicit for the third also.

In many ways, Paul’s portrait of the Corinthians is their self-portrait as well, a canvas painted from a personal photograph. And in some ways, Paul agreed that it was an accurate self-portrait. The Corinthians were satisfied gourmands. Paul agreed that they “were all given the one Spirit to drink” (12:13). They were wealthy beyond daily need. Paul agreed that they had been “enriched in every way” (1:5). They were kings exercising royal authority. Paul agreed that when Jesus Christ returned, they would “reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12).

The difference between Paul’s portrait and the Corinthians’ self-portrait centers on degree and timeframe. The Corinthians had begun to experience the benefits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, but they had not experienced them to full degree. That fullness lay in the future, when Jesus Christ returns and completes the work of the kingdom of God. The Corinthians had an overrealized eschatology because their already swamped the kingdom’s not yet.

Their overrealized eschatology made them proud of themselves and embarrassed of Paul, who was in perpetual trouble because of his evangelistic work. By contrast with them, Paul portrayed himself as ruined, and the Corinthians no doubt agreed with his self-portrait. He painted himself into the picture of a Roman triumphal procession, where a conquering general led his city’s enemies into the arena for their execution in front of his fellow citizens. For the Corinthians, Paul’s troubles – deprivation, persecution, prison – were evidence of his distance from God. For Paul, it was “God [who] has put us apostles on display.”

American Christianity is largely Corinthian. We believe our comfort is evidence of God’s blessing; other’s discomfort is evidence of their spiritual immaturity. If Paul is right, however, our comfort is evidence of spiritual self-indulgence. Paul suffered because he was “in the arena,” fighting for others’ spiritual destiny.

Where are we?

Giving Church Another Chance


Todd D. Hunter, Giving Church Another Chance: Finding New Meaning in Spiritual Practices (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $18.00, 190 pages.

I have been going to church my entire life. I am a pastor, my father was a pastor, and his father a pastor before him. The weekly rhythm of Sunday worship and midweek Bible study is the only rhythm I have ever known.

And, truth be told, I’m a bit tired of it. Perhaps you are too. If so, take a look at Todd Hunter’s new book, Giving Church Another Chance.

Todd Hunter grew up Methodist, converted at Calvary Chapel, was in on the startup of Vineyard Fellowship, spent a few years doing alternative church, and is now a priest of the Anglican Mission in America. He’s seen and done a lot of different styles of church. The experience hasn’t made him cynical, however; but it has highlighted his felt need for Christians to rethink what they’re getting out of church.

As I read Giving Church Another Chance, three things stood out as most relevant for me.

First, the need to connect church with the real world: What does going to church have to do with the rest of my life? For many years, I was an associate pastor. For three years, I was a senior pastor. Now, I work for my denomination and just attend church. But in all three cases, there were (are) sometimes when I leave a Sunday morning worship service and have no idea how to answer the question of relevance. I have been immersed in an experience of divine transcendence, but I have no idea how it applies to the other six days of my week. Hunter shows the relevance of the church’s spiritual practices to life.

Second, the need to move from beliefs to behaviors. I am an intellectual type of guy. I love to read, write, and argue. And so, my constant temptation is to live in my head. But knowing the Bible is not the same thing as doing what it says, and if the Apostle James is to be believed, doing it is what counts most. Hunter focuses on practices, showing us how can live out what we learn on Sunday mornings: doxology, Scripture, sermons, offering, communion, and benediction.

Third, the need to move from consumption toward mission. This is similar to the point above, but it has an angle toward the evangelization and discipleship of others. Hunter calls this “doing faith for the sake of others.”

Truth be told, I had a hard time reading this book. Hunter’s writing style is simple and clear, but it wasn’t jibing with me. I can’t really explain why not. But as he wrote, I kept identifying myself in the story he was telling – especially regarding the points mentioned above – so I kept reading.

And I’m glad I did. Attending church is a way of constantly reminding yourself that it (life, etc.) is not about you, that you don’t know everything, and that you can learn from the practices of the faithful who have gone before you. It is, in other words, a discipline of God’s grace.

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Against All Gods


Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds, Against All Gods: What’s Right and Wrong about the New Atheism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $15.00, 119 pages.

Toward the end of Against All Gods, Phillip Johnson writes this: “[E]very position about the nature of life and its origin has difficulties. Therefore, the question is not whether we can find a position that has no difficulties, but rather, which set of difficulties we prefer to embrace.”

For several years now, the “New Atheists” have highlighted what they believe are the “difficulties” in theistic worldviews, especially the Christian theistic worldview. For many of them, rationality is more or less identical to the deliverances of science, and what science delivers most clearly is evolution. Since evolution explains the biological complexity of the universe without reference to God, God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Continuing belief in him, then, is an exercise of irrational faith.

Johnson and Reynolds push back against these conclusions by pointing out several difficulties within the “Darwinian worldview” itself. Among other things, they point out that faith is not irrational. Rather, it is human, a necessary component for all human intellectual endeavors. Further, the deliverances of science cannot determine once for all the nonexistence of God since those deliverances shift over time. Also, if the Darwinian worldview acts as a “universal acid” on traditional beliefs – the phrase is Daniel Dennett’s – then it acts as a universal acid on all beliefs. If there is an evolutionary explanation for belief in God, then there is also an evolutionary explanation for belief in evolution. If the evolutionary explanation invalidates the former, it invalidates the latter as well.

One needn’t agree with Johnson and Reynolds’ Christian theism, as I do, to appreciate the difficulties with atheism they raise in this small book. But surely at least one of the goals of a liberal arts education should be self-criticism: knowing what’s doubtful about one’s own position. For years, criticism of theism has been an implicit and explicit part of a liberal arts education on many college campuses. Taking the first steps toward criticism of atheism in the same way would be a sign of educational progress.

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Hell Under Fire


Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004). $19.99, 256 pages.

The doctrine of eternal punishment is firmly established in both Scripture and the Christian tradition, but it also has its detractors within the church, from Origen in the early third century and Arnobius of Sicca in the early fourth to Thomas Talbott and Edward William Fudge today. The principal alternatives to eternal punishment are universal salvation and the annihilation of the wicked, the former represented by Origen and Talbott, the latter by Arnobius and Fudge. Hell Under Fire is an exegetical and theological defense of the doctrine by evangelical scholars.

In Chapter 1, R. Albert Mohler Jr. traces the disappearance of hell. Though once a staple in both Catholic and Protestant – and especially evangelical Protestant – preaching, hell has been downplayed by modern theologians and preachers. Mohler explains why.

Chapters 2-5 provide exegesis of relevant passages from the Bible. Daniel I. Block examines what the Old Testament teaches about the afterlife. Only two passages – Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:1-3 – clearly articulate a postmortem experience of divine judgment, although many passages speak of or hint at life after death. Nonetheless, the OT material is valuable for understanding how Jews prior to Jesus thought of life after death, and one can see a theological evolution of the doctrine from the OT’s vague statements to the New Testament’s clearer teaching on the subject.

Robert W. Yarbrough (my NT professor at Wheaton College) surveys the Gospels. He opens with a critique of those who doubt that the Gospels accurately convey the teaching of the historical Jesus. He goes on to provide a close exegesis of relevant passages from the Synoptics and John and concludes that they teach the “ceaseless constant torment” of the impenitent, against Fudge’s annihilationist reading of those same passages.

Douglas J. Moose surveys the Pauline epistles. Moo concedes that Paul does not use the terminology of “hell” as Jesus did. Nonetheless, based on what Paul wrote about divine judgment, Moo concludes that Paul believed hell was real, eternal, and retributive in nature.

Gregory K. Beale provides, in my opinion, the book’s densest and most technical exegesis in his study of Revelation. He tracks down the background of John’s visions of hell to the OT and intertestamental Jewish literature, interacts with annihilationist readings of the relevant passages, and concludes that Revelation clearly teaches eternal punishment, hinting that only someone with “a prior theological agenda” could conclude otherwise. Coming as it does in the penultimate paragraph of his chapter, after pages of fair-minded exegesis, Beale’s hint strikes me as very plausible.

To my mind, the single most helpful chapter in Hell Under Fire is Morgan’s (Chapter 6), which offers a broad survey of the NT teaching on hell using its three primary images: punishment, destruction, and banishment. Morgan’s chapter builds upon and frames the previous exegetical chapters. He notes that the NT writers use all three images, sometimes mixing and matching them. The dominant image is punishment, but the other images explain other aspects of hell that the punishment doesn’t capture.

In Chapter 7, Peterson surveys the interrelationship of the doctrine of hell with three other doctrines: (1) the Trinity, (2) divine sovereignty and human freedom, and (3) the NT’s inaugurated eschatology, in which the kingdom of God – both to save and to condemn – is “already” but “not yet.”

Chapters 8 and 9, by J.I. Packer and Morgan, respectively, evaluate the underlying theologies of universal salvation and the annihilation of the wicked, in that order. Packer’s chapter was the weakest in the book, in my opinion. To the extent that they rely on biblical exegesis to ground their belief, universalists cite several passages in Paul, which Packer treats in only a cursory fashion. Thankfully, Moo considers those passages in his own chapter and shows why context rules out a universalist interpretation of them. The real strength of universalism, or rather, its real impetus, is philosophical. Unfortunately, Packer does not do as good a job of dealing with universalist philosophical objections as he could have. A philosopher such as Jerry Walls would’ve done a better job, in my estimation, of answering the universalist arguments of people such as Talbott. I’m not sure why Walls wasn’t asked to contribute a chapter, since he has written a book on hell from the standpoint of philosophical theology. Given the Reformed or Calvinist leanings of the authors of this book, my guess is that including an Arminian such as Walls simply wasn’t on the agenda. To his credit, Packer notes that Calvinists and Arminians – indeed, open theists! – unite in opposing universalism, though for different reasons, of course.

Morgan’s chapter on annihilationism, also known as conditional immortality, takes up five objections to eternal punishment offered by advocates of this alternative position, including the notion that eternal punishment assumes a Platonic or Hellenistic rather than biblical anthropology of the soul’s immortality. As in his earlier chapter on biblical theology, Morgan does an excellent job of working his way through the arguments in a clear, accessible style of writing.

Chapter 10 by Sinclair Ferguson addresses the pastoral uses of the doctrine of eternal punishment. This situates the doctrine in the real life of the church, as pastors evangelize and lead the spiritual formation of their congregations. Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and John do not discuss the doctrine of hell for systematic theological reasons. They preach it in order to warn sinners and motivate repentance. Ferguson refocuses his readers on these important pastoral tasks.

Although Hell Under Fire contains high-level exegesis and systematic thinking, it was not written for academics. Rather, it was written for them, for pastors, and for patient lay readers with an interest in theology. If the Bible teaches the reality of eternal punishment and encourages people to avoid that fate through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, then Bible-believing Christians should do the same. If you are going to purchase only one book on the doctrine of eternal punishment, this is the one you should buy.

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Holier than Thou and Uppity Christians (1 Corinthians 4:6-7)


 

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There are two kinds of Christians that I try to avoid: holier-than-thou Christians and uppity Christians. Holier-than-thou Christians think they are spiritually better than others. Uppity Christians think they are socially better than others.

The two groups are distinct, but they can overlap. In other words, holier-than-thou types may consider themselves spiritually better than others, but not socially better. Uppity types may consider themselves socially better than others, but not spiritually better. It seems that the Corinthians considered themselves both spiritually and socially better than others, including Paul.

The Corinthians were cagey, however. Instead of simply saying, “We’re better than others,” they argued about the relative superiority of their Christian leaders – i.e., Paul, Apollos, and Peter – with Paul drawing the fewest favorable votes. In other words, they projected their superiority rankings onto their leaders, and then they fell to arguing over whose projected rankings were correct.

The point of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21 is that their quarreling is unhelpful because their standard is wrong. The gospel exposes the folly of humanly devised superiority rankings. The old adage about the ground being level at the foot of the cross is true. We are peers in our sinfulness and our need for grace. God is our Superior because “he gives more grace” (James 4:6). Therefore, we should not boast about ourselves but only about God (1 Cor. 1:29, 31).

In 1 Corinthians 4:6-7, Paul writes:

Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

“These things” refer specifically to the metaphors of leadership Paul has employed throughout his argument. In the preceding verses, he has described Christian leaders as “waiters,” “servants,” and “stewards.” These are metaphors of subordination, not superiority. Christian leaders are “waiters” in their relationship to their congregations. They serve them the “bread of life” for their spiritual nourishment (John 6:35). They are “servants” and “stewards” in their relationship to God, responsible to him for carrying out the divinely given task of proclaiming the gospel. Neither relationship leaves the Christian leader any room for pride.

What applies to the leader applies also to the follower. Paul describes Christian leaders as he does so that the Corinthians “will not take pride in one man over against another.” The Corinthians are the products of God’s grace channeled through Paul’s evangelism and Apollos’ discipleship. Paul asks the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Answer: nothing. The good news is God’s grace for people like us who don’t deserve it.

Holier-than-thou Christianity and uppity Christianity, taken separately or together, are a repudiation of that gospel.

Five Statements about Politics That Are Obviously True


I do a fair amount of reading about how Christian faith should shape a Christian’s involvement in politics. Based on my reading, I’ve come to five conclusions that I think are obviously true.

  1. God is not a Republican.
  2. Jesus is not a Democrat.
  3. The Holy Spirit is not a moderate.
  4. The church in America exists to make better Christians, not better Americans.
  5. America is not the kingdom of God.

What do you think?

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