Bible, Culture

The Bible Is Not A Prop

June 3, 2020

The mingling of politicians and religion is always a recipe for impure motives and unclear intent. Is a man or woman (in this case, a politician) simply using religion (or elements of religion, such as the Bible, churches, etc) to garnish their political reputation or to gain a favor with a particular stream of voters. While it is always dangerous to speculate on motives, President Trump’s posturing before St. John’s Church with Bible in hand is an egregious use of the Bible and the God of the Bible. Lest we forget, God is after his own glory, rather than the aggrandizing of our faux-glory.

Rather than yielding the Bible as the word of life (Phil 2:16), Trump decided to pose for a photo-op right after dispersing innocent protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets. The irony, the ugly irony, is right before our face. As we come face-to-face with the Word himself, we discover that in this political stunt, our current President was not following alongside the path of Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, humbled himself. In a moment where the President could have spoken words of hope, encouragement, and courage to a nation suffering and aching with racial tension, he chose to further drive a wedge between our nation with the very thing that can bring us together: the peace and love of God found in the Scriptures. Make no mistake, God or the Bible cannot and will not be used as a prop for man’s ambition and glory—it always has and and always will be about the supremacy of God over all things.

Sadly, again, because politics and religion have become enmeshed in our country, Christians in our current era are enamored by a President who holds the Bible but sadly, in many cases, does not love the Bible or walk in accordance with the Bible. Growing up in conservative, evangelical churches the majority of my life, I have seen over time the real implications of John’s exhortation, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The danger before us is to wholeheartedly defend a political candidate as spiritually competent because they support our ethical and moral convictions. The threat is ever before us: will our allegiance belong to America or to Yahweh himself? This is not to say that we must pound Trump with our words, or to wish ill upon him, but it should make us speculate whether or not we have fallen into idolatry. We should love our country, pray for our leaders, and serve our nation with honor, but lest we forget who the true King is, we may easily find that America becomes our house of worship, not the temple of the Lord.

The Bible that Trump holds in his hand will not be used as a prop; it contains the story of the Triune God who rules and reigns over all things. Thankfully, in Christ, all who belong to God are now joint-heirs to the kingdom that is coming. As we celebrate and worship the slaughtered, risen, and victorious Lamb of God, may we remember that “one day America and all its presidents will be a footnote in history, but God’s kingdom will never end.”

Bible, Culture

Let Justice Roll Down Like A River

June 2, 2020

Growing up in southern New Mexico for the majority of my life, I did not have a concept of racism incarnated in my hometown. For the most part, Hispanics and Anglos mix well in the Southwest. With such a small African-American population, racism was something that existed in textbooks. It wasn’t until I moved to St. Louis, MO in 2015 that I experienced the overwhelming experience of racism between whites and blacks. My eyes were opened to the current oppression that happens in our country. The amount of injustice surrounding me daily was staggering. Yet, for the majority of evangelical pastors around me, the subject was “not central to the Gospel,” or “too political.”

A dramatic shift happened in 2019 when I read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise—I suddenly became aware of the systematic, overt, and ongoing oppression of African-Americans, not simply from whites, but from white Christians and pastors. The Bible that I love and preach from was used as an instrument of torture for those whose skin color was darker than mine. The God of light could not love the darks, I guess. After I read Tisby’s work, I was angry—righteously angry.

The same feelings resurfaced this past week in the horrific killing of George Floyd, a man created in the image of God. Any unjust death is lamentable, but this one was different; this caused anger, sorrow, and disgust. Sadly, the broader white church has since focused on the chaotic rioting (resulting in further injustice) than on the death of another African-American man (again, this is not to say that the chaotic rioting is correct, rather, it is to say that many of my conservative, white evangelical friends simply focus on that). For those of you who continue to downplay the racial tension present in our country, maybe you need to watch the murder of Floyd until you are uncomfortable, and then keep watching.

When we look at the end of history, we see a vision of heaven coming to earth where every tribe, tongue, and language will sing the glory and goodness of God. It will be a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic celebration of the Triune God. The church should be a picture of what that this celebration should look like. How long then will our churches herald, even if unintentionally, a covertly racist Christianity that furthers the oppression of African-Americans in our community. What if God was calling us not to cliche responses, nor to identity with a particular political party, but to champion the King from the Middle East who looks nothing like the predominant culture of Anglo-Evangelicals.

How then shall we live, if this is the case? First, we repent of our overt or covert racism that exists in our churches and in our hearts. Repentance may look upward and horizontal, meaning that we will confess to God that we have treated his image bearers with judgment and scorn, and that we will seek to repair relationships that have suffered because of our judgmental attitudes. But repentance does not end with an apology, it continues with action. We repent by taking action and fighting for justice, equality, and peace for our African-American brothers and sisters. A church that simply acknowledges wrong but does nothing to change is not repenting but simply is sorry they were caught. Something must change.

Second, we pray and plan for justice to roll down like a river, like Amos says (who, by the, way is not a lone-wolf in the call for justice in the world). We pray that God might come return to restore and renew all things, including, but not limited to, the racial issues that are prevalent throughout our world. But furthermore, we must plan to take action, to champion the marginalized and oppressed in our communities, and use our voice as a witness for those who have long been trampled over. In other words, we need to pray and plan in such a way that leads to restorative and uncomfortable progress in the area of racial reconciliation in our world.

The good news of the Gospel says that in Christ, all those who are enemies can become reconciled, for Christ, who is our peace, has broken down the walls of hostility (Ephesians 4:12). The sacrifice and resurrection of Christ enables you to find peace with God and therefore, peace with your fellow brothers and sisters in the world. Christian, in your attempts to herald this good news of Jesus, do not covertly erect a barrier that hinders your fellow image bearers from seeing, savoring, and delighting in the God of peace.

Bible, Ministry

Coronavirus and Christian Freedom

June 1, 2020

Division In The Church

The mood was tense—obviously the meeting was called to help reconcile a significant conflict that happened in the church. Like lines drawn in the sand, each party sat on their respective sides of the main isle. The words of God’s people were not in towards adoration towards their savior but in accusation against their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The battle ground was not over some important theological treatise or an immoral failing of a leader— it was over whether or not it was proper to eat meat. Through the Holy Spirit, Paul mediates the conflict: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. [3] Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom 14:2-3). 

It may sound silly that a congregation could be divided over what types of food they eat but the reality is that the modern church is facing a similar moment of division. Our battle is not concerning food but concerning the symbol of safety amidst a global pandemic: the mask. Pastors are recognizing that a few pieces of cloth could soon split their church if they do not deal with the issue with biblical wisdom and care. In this vein, I am thankful for Brett McCracken who wrote an excellent piece at The Gospel Coalition entitled “Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You.” My hope is that we may discover that the Bible actually has helpful wisdom on how to navigate such ethical grey matters.

The Gospel Allows Us To Yield

In Romans 14, Paul instructs all Christians, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom 14:1). In this case, the one who is weak in faith is the one who has a soft conscience, believing that eating meat is personally wrong. How then should the church approach such a person? The people of God should welcome them because God in Christ has welcomed all of us (Rom 14:3). We stand united on every Lord’s Day not based upon our preferences or our worldly identities but upon the very fact that God has united us to Christ and therefore, we belong both to God and to one another. 

In a season of perpetual contradictory advice, let us not fall into the trap that what binds us together is our homogenous response to the Covid-19 pandemic. There will be godly Christians who choose to wear masks, social distance for longer, and take an abundance of safety precautions; there will also be godly Christians who do the opposite. Let us live in light of Paul’s exhortation, “[6] The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. [7] For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. [8] For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. [9] For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom 14:6-9). What binds us together is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and therefore, regardless of our opinions of how to handle this current crisis, we can stand united together in grace. 

We all have the opportunity to extend one another charity and grace in light of God’s constant extension of grace to us. We remember that Christ died and rose so that we who were his enemies might find forgiveness and life. In this complex season, let us not allow division to grow in our churches due to our personal preferences and convictions surrounding best practices. My hope and prayer, particularly for the people of Coram Deo, is that God may be shaping us into a people who are full of slow to speak, quick to listen, full of grace, and possess an abundance of patience for one another. 

Bible

Rejoicing in Suffering

May 27, 2020

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. – Habakkuk 3:17–19 (ESV)

Imagine a prophet that has been called by God, but this time, he is not proclaiming good news—he is openly lamenting. He stands before God not with adoration and praise but with complaint and accusations. “Why do you tolerate evil and wrongdoing,” the prophet cries out to God. Imagine a man or woman, lamenting the loss of a child; a husband the loss of a wife; a child the loss of a friend. What do we do when evil and calamity strike not just our city and neighborhood but even our own souls?

Who would have thought that an 2,600 year old book would be so relevant to the life of today. Habakkuk is such a prophet, who knows what it is like to walk in the midst of despair and is not fearful to hide his complaining and lamenting to God. In the land of Judah, there is evil, injustice, suffering, and despair, and Habakkuk is yearning for God to make things right. Yet, the answer that Habakkuk receives has more to do with waiting than receiving. Where do you go when God answers but it isn’t the answer that you wanted?

At the very end of the book, Habakkuk changes the mood: his lamenting has turned into rejoicing. How does the prophet rejoice even when his prayers are not answered? Because his hope is not in what God can bring but in God himself. You see, too many of us come to God for what he can do rather than for who He is. Notice that Habakkuk says he will rejoice in God and find his joy in God. Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? Right in the middle of the despair, whispering in your ear, “I know what I am doing. Trust me. Put your hope in me. I will comfort you. I am your God.”

To put it into our language, Habakkuk says, “When my 401(k) is drained, I have lost my job, and there are no prospects, even then I will rejoice in the Lord.” Habakuk ultimately finds his joy and hope not in transient objects such as wealth, power, or relationships, but in God, who is in Himself the fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11). This does not mean that Habakkuk is happy or overtly cheerful—it does mean that there is a deep sense of abiding joy that is present even in the most difficult circumstances.

In the days that are relentless in their assault against you, will you trust in the strength of the Lord rather than the strength of your plans? Will you trust in the strength of the Lord rather than the strength of yourself? God is inviting you to trust Him in the darkness because he acutely knows what it is like to walk in darkness. Jesus himself entered the darkest of hours while on the cross so that even though you may feel forsaken at this moment—God will never forsake you.

Ministry, Theology

Coronavirus and Life

May 26, 2020

At the front of political and cultural discourse is a conversation about life, particularly, how to save and protect life in light of coronavirus. In our age of mounting divisive rhetoric, the ability to hold two positions in tension is of utmost importance. Over the past few months, I have noticed that there is a heightened sense of longing to protect and preserve life when it comes to coronavirus. Phrases such as, “Stop the spread! Flatten the curve! Stay home!” dominate everything from mainstream news to billboards. I first and foremost want to affirm that this falls in line with the biblical ideal—that we protect and preserve life, for all mankind has been made in the image of God. Every life is worthy of such honorable pursuit. 

Yet, the inability to have a charitable dialogue is stifling a broader view of what constitutes life. At this given moment, individuals in various positions are simply not listening to one another. One camp wants to continue to preserve life by containing the stay-at-home orders, while the other camp wants to open the country so that economic and emotional and mental health may prosper. Unfortunately, since we are unable to listen with humility and respond with charity, neither position gains traction but simply digs their heels in further. My hope and prayer for the church I serve (Coram Deo) is that God would shape us into a people that are slow to speak, quick to listen, and abundant in grace and charity. 

This all leads to my proposition: that in our current system, when the majority of Americans use the word “life,” particularly in the Covid-19 pandemic, the word is limited and stifled. What do I mean by that? The narrative has been all about protecting and preserving life, which, in this case, means physical life. Yet, we all know that simply being alive is not all that it means to be alive. We understand very acutely that the quality of life that we posses is in direct correlation to our value of “life.” For example, it is not for no reason that when we are in a terrible job or relationship we often use the phrase, “This job/relationship is killing me.” This is because the job/relationship is inflicting death upon our souls, even though we are still physically living. 

Personally, I want to do everything I can to help limit the spread of Covid-19 and therefore, protect and preserve physical life. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that the attempts to stave off physical death are also creating more physical, emotional, and spiritual death. In other words, while we may be protecting and preserving physical life, we may, unintentionally creating and mental health crisis that virtually does the same thing. A recent report from the head of one of California’s hospital’s trauma team recently noted that they have seen a year’s worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks. In a survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus is harming their mental health. Furthermore, “a federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year.” Is this really living? 

I understand that there are no clear-cut answers to the problems we are currently facing. Anyone who proposes simple solutions to the complexity that we are in right now is simply ill-informed. Yet, in our chanting of preserving life, let us not forget that life is more than physical living. How many more deaths by suicide will it take for us to realize that in our attempts to stave off death by illness, we may be creating an environment where death by self is the preferred option. May we begin to recapture the wisdom of old, that God has made man to love him with our whole beings—heart, mind, soul, and strength (Duet 6:6). 

So, yes, I want to unapologetically defend the lives of those who are currently living. I want to help in the endeavor to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases; I want to serve my fellow neighbors and citizens by being safe; I want to help people from physically dying. I also want to acknowledge that stay-at-home orders are also causing death—both in suicide and in emotional and mental health. As a people, God is inviting us to hold both of these options in tension rather than living in the faux-binary choice system that we are often pressed to believe.

Bible, Ministry

Boldness in Prayer

May 11, 2020

In the midst of evil, suffering, anxiety, and death, where do you turn? Do you turn to God? Perhaps, more specifically, how do you turn to God? When life is overwhelming, when there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and sorrow crashes upon our soul, do you believe that God longs for you to come with honesty and transparency? Or do you believe that He wants a polished version of your anxious heart? 

In the 7th century B.C., a relatively unknown minor prophet named Habakkuk was in a similar season of discouragement. There was evil in the land of Judah, pollution of God’s temple, and he was lamenting the effects of sin in God’s promised land. But, as modern people often think, what can such an old book from such an unknown man teach us about the complexities of modern life? Quite a lot actually. You see, Habakkuk was so confident in God, that he prayed with audacity and boldness. Listen to the lament of Habakkuk:

Habakkuk 1:2–3, 12

            [2] O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,

                        and you will not hear?

            Or cry to you “Violence!”

                        and you will not save?

            [3] Why do you make me see iniquity,

                        and why do you idly look at wrong?

            Destruction and violence are before me;

                        strife and contention arise. (ESV)

            [12] Are you not from everlasting,

                        O LORD my God, my Holy One?

                        We shall not die.

Habakkuk cries out to God with boldness, levying accusations against God that he tolerates evil. It is as if Habakkuk is screaming at the heavens, “Don’t you see the evil in the land! Can’t you see the injustice! Do you not care? Why do you look at evil and do nothing?” There is the true Habakkuk—wrestling, fighting, struggling, lamenting. Habakkuk continues with a rhetorical question, which, if you remember, is not a request for information but serves as an accusation framed in a question, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God? Are you not infinite? I thought you were supposed to be this great God! I thought you were supposed to be wise and infinite. I guess your not.” 

Amazingly, God does respond to Habakkuk throughout the letter, “Don’t worry, Habakkuk. I am doing something about the evil and injustice in the world. I’m bringing judgment, but more importantly, I’m bringing salvation.” In the shadows of the minor prophet lie penetrating images of light, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Even though life currently is filled with suffering and evil, remember that God’s ultimate goal for all things is restoration and redemption. 

One of the most beautiful things about the Bible is that is written for us, meaning that God has placed the laments of Habakkuk in the Bible for a reason: that we might learn to lament honestly with the prophet. In this season of Covid-19, will you accept the King’s invitation to lament and pray boldly and honestly? Will you come to him with your fear, discouragement, anxiety, anger, and complaining? God does not want your polished prayers but your genuine laments. 

Do you know why it is OK that you come to God with your honesty? Because His love for you is not dependent upon your piety but upon His faithfulness. God says to you, “I love you not for who you are but in spite of who are you.” God has made a covenant commitment to you; he is not leaving. Today, you can cry out with bold honesty, knowing that your Father stoops down on one knee and says, “I know, my child, what it feels like to be in a world full of lamenting. I’m here with you.” Will you go to him today?

Bible, Ministry

Be Kind to Yourself

April 6, 2020

Tears are often not my friend but on this particular day, I was sobbing like a young child. Nothing traumatic happened—no-one died, no one was suffering, no one injured me; I was simply driving in my car, listening to music. For some reason, on that particular day, God decided to use a song written by Andrew Peterson to open the floodgates of my soul in order that I may experience the grace of Jesus in a way like never before.

You see, for many, many years, I have struggled to rest. I have a driving desire to work and accomplish big things. I do not like idle time; I do not like wasting time. At times, this drive to work hard can be an absolute gift; other times, it can be a crushing reminder of constantly failing at something. There is always more to do, more to learn, more to explore, more ways to maximize time. For years now, if you were to ask me to give you one word to summarize my day, I would routinely reply: failure. I did not do enough, accomplish enough, read enough, memorize enough, be enough.

Yet, thankfully, the Lord is much more patient than I am, and has been chiseling away at my pride of self-reliance and my value system of achievement for quite some time. Back when I was a student at Covenant Seminary, God, in his mercy, began to reveal my insatiable desire for achievement, control, and perfection. Rather than rejoicing over a 94, I would determine to work harder to get a 97. In seminary, there was always more to do—more reading, more studying, more research, more memorizing—more, more, more. Even outside of school, was I not training to be a pastor? Then, I need to have a robust spiritual life, a godly presence in the home, a tender and firm heart with my children, a loving and caring disposition towards my wife. The pressure was insurmountable.

It is not as if Seminary created this drive in me, it just revealed how deep the cancer actually was in my heart; it exposed what I truly valued in life: achievement. Eventually, again, in the mercy and patience of God, achievement broke my soul and body. I was spiritually dry, irritated, angry; my body was showing signs of wear and tear: sleepless nights, weight gain, panic attacks, and night terrors. I could not control it anymore. I needed help. It was the first time, on my own volition, that I sought out a professional counselor to help me.

One Stinging Question

One crisp Autumn day, my counselor looked at my dead in the eyes and asked, “I want you to imagine for a moment that someone was talking to your wife or your family in the same way that you talk to yourself, what would you say? How would you respond?” I responded, as any ordinary person would, “I would tell them to stop. They had no right to talk to my wife or my family in that matter. They deserved kindness.” And Chad looked at me, as if Jesus was speaking directly to me, “Do you think God has given you the right to be harsh with yourself?” Partly relieved and partly embarrassed, I replied, “I guess not…”

You see, I had the tendency to walk into his office every week and talk about my inability to rest, “You can’t watch this movie, you could be using your time better. Stay up to study more. If you don’t do better, you will be a failure. You won’t be valued. This is where your ultimate success comes from.” He heard the constant internal dialogue in my head that demonstrated that I was ultimately being harsh with myself; I was not being kind to myself. While it may sound like psychobabble to some, my counselor’s words were exactly what I needed to hear: be kind to yourself. After all, Jesus says we should love our neighbors, as we love ourselves.

Growing up in the Reformed theological tradition, harshness and a self-critical spirit are almost prized. “Be killing sin,” Owen says, “or it will be killing you.” Contrition, mortification, and self-evaluation always seemed to be a virtue. While I believe that these things are still inherently valuable and true, I was also missing another piece of the puzzle: grace. My counselors words allowed me to experience grace in the moment rather than it being simply a subject I studied in the pages of the Bible or in good books. In other words, grace was awakening my soul to grace.

A Few Years Later

Like a good Father, God does not give up on us, as these counseling sessions were two to three years ago and I am still a recovering achievement addict. In this moment of the story, I am in the throes of full-blown church planting, which is fertile ground for an achievement junky to get his next fix. Eventually, the condemning self-talk gets to me, I am exhausted, distracted, irritated, and distant. Then, as I am mindlessly driving home, my Spotify playlist begins to play a song I’ve never heard before by Andrew Peterson: Be Kind To Yourself.

In hindsight, I know that Peterson is writing this song to his daughter, but in the moment, it was as if God the Father was singing this over me (Zephaniah 3:17). The song, which is actually quite simple, repeats over and over again: be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself. In a moment, the goodness and loving-kindness of Jesus floods my soul, I am overcome with tears, and I experience the kindness and grace of Jesus like never before.

Intellectually I understood Matthew 11, where Jesus says his burden is light, but it was not until that my moment that I experienced it. I constantly felt heavy-laden, burdened, and overwhelmed. Peterson’s words were like a healing arrow to my heart:

You can’t expect to be perfect
It’s a fight you’ve gotta forfeit
You belong to me whatever you do
So lay down your weapon, darling
Take a deep breath and believe that I love you

Be kind to yourself – be kind to yourself

Again, intellectually I knew I could not be perfect, but functionally I said, “But you can try really, really hard to be.” In that moment, I heard God say to me, “Lay down your weapon, lay down your self-reliance, take a deep breath, believe that I love you; therefore, be kind to yourself.”

When Jesus said in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies,” I always imagined that the enemy was external to me (which, it is, most of the time). But what if, for some of you who are like me, one of your greatest enemies is your self? What if your mind is constantly at war with yourself? What if your enemy is you? Peterson asks the same question:

How does it end when the war that you’re in
Is just you against you against you
Gotta learn to love, learn to love
Learn to love your enemies too

Eventually, the war that I was in with myself either led to my own defeat or my own freedom. Through the power of the Gospel, God has been freeing me, day-by-day, to the hope-inducing reality that I am in Christ, and I am loved right now. My prayer is that my story, which is still in progress, may encourage your heart to discover that God loves you right now.

Book Review, Books, Ministry, Theology

Book Review: Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine

December 9, 2019

There are few authors that I enjoy reading more than Kevin J. Vanhoozer, both from his academic and pastoral repertoire. Vanhoozer is a master wordsmith and a brilliant scholar, yet, at the same time, possesses a warm pastoral heart that desires to serve the church. This volume is no exception to the breadth of knowledge and pastoral sensitivity that Vanhoozer possesses. Every pastor would be encouraged, challenged, and blessed to pick up this latest volume in 2020.

In his latest book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine, Vanhoozer’s intention is “to help pastors fulfill their Great Commission to make disciples, with emphasis on the importance of teaching disciples to read the Scriptures…” (p. xi). Speaking personally, I was converted by simply picking up the Bible and reading, and thus, the intention of Vanhoozer’s latest book is a call to what I find most sacred in the Christian life: reading the Scriptures.

As a pastor, there are endless tasks to attend; the tyranny of the urgent really becomes tyrannical. In the day-to-day life of a minister, what should his time be consumed in? Vanhoozer argues that one of the most important tasks of a Christian pastor is to make disciples from doctrinal and theological positions, namely, from reading and obeying the Scriptures doctrinally. In other words, rather than leaving doctrine in the ivory-tower, the author argues that it is for the every-day Christian. Doctrine should inform not only what we believe but how we live as Christians in our present day.

Fitness and Doctrine

Vanhoozer does a beautiful job of exposing cultural idols and reforming them in a biblical perspective to show how discipleship is actually what people are longing for. Everyone believes in some sort of salvation or good news (gospel), the question is: which good news are you living for? Which vision of the good life have you been captured by? Vanhoozer argues that modern day culture has been infatuated with wellness and fitness, suggesting that this has become the da-facto god of our culture. From diet program, wellness seminars, workout sessions, clothing lines, and an overall desire to be fit, Vanhoozer notes that the language culture uses for the physical body can and should be adopted for discipleship in Christ’s body: the local church.

Rather than simply making people fit physically, pastors are called to “make disciples by training them to be fit for the purpose of godliness” (p. 44). Here Vanhoozer makes a helpful distinction, noting the sovereign grace of God in ultimately making (i.e. waking) disciples, “…while pastors may “make” (that is, train) disciples, only God can “wake” ( that is, create) them. Discipleship is about becoming who we are in Christ, and this is entirely, a work of God” (p. 44). Pastors then are called to make or train disciples the story of Scripture, which is a narrative of how we are to find the good life, and call them to obedience to that narrative. Just like the wellness culture calls for all-of-life devotion, so too does God call for all-of-life devotion, not in just beliefs but also in obedience: “Belief without behavior is empty. Genuine discipleship, in contrast, is the sustainable practice of hearing and doing freedom in Christ” (p. 45).

Doctrine for Discipleship

Often times doctrine and theology get a bad rap, supposing that they are irrelevant to modern life or simply impractical. Vanhoozer turns this idea on his head, noting that doctrine is everywhere (even outside of Christian circles), though it may not be labeled as doctrine. In other words, you are always being discipled by somebody or something; some grand narrative will be shaping your thoughts, values, and therefore, your actions. “Spiritual formation is happening all the time,” writes Vanhoozer, “Culture and society are in the full-time business of making disciples, not to life in Christ to a variety of lifestyles, all informed by culturally conditioned pictures of health, wellness, and fitness” (p. 63). Therefore, doctrine informs discipleship, meaning that the grand narrative of Scriptures gives us a lifestyle of how to live for God in this world, namely as “heralds and representatives of the Kingdom of God” (p. 64).

In a ministerial world dominated by businessmen, brand-ambassadors, and executives, Hearers and Doers calls pastors back to “recover their vocation as ministers of the word and reclaim Scripture and doctrine as means for making disciples” (p. 91). Rather than relying upon the latest fad or the best small group technique, ministers “need to recover anew a confidence and competence in the ministry of the word of God” (p. 99). Doctrine is not aloof from the Christian life, rather it is the fuel that drives the engine of the Christian life. Pastors need to recover the importance of doctrinal formation, Scriptural inculcation, and theological catechesis for the church as a whole.

Conclusion

For those looking for practical tips on how to create a discipleship system or program in their church, Vanhoozer will come up empty. But if you are looking for a biblically ground call for the pastorship, one that is marked by the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, Vanhoozer will leave your ink dry from the penned notes. Dripped with biblical language, culturally awareness, and the intricacies of daily Christian living, Hearers and Doers will refresh and encourage your soul to continue the hard work of making disciples by the Scriptures.

Bible, Theology

A Missing Emphasis in the Doctrine of Election

June 29, 2019

There are few topics quite like the doctrine of election that will split Christians into differing tribes. Introduce the topics of predestination, foreknowledge, and election on social media and the comment section will be populated even before you hit refresh. Sadly, this doctrine has often been the great dividing marker between the two proposed camps—Calvinism and Arminianism. While the doctrine of election has caused division of the years, both historically in the church and personally in my life, I believe that there is a missing emphasis in both camps. Regardless of where you land on this topic, I believe we can both learn a great deal from one of the greatest, albeit, unknown to many Christians, 20th century theologians and missiologists of our day—Lesslie Newbigin.

Before we get to Newbigin, I want to touch briefly on the nature of doctrine and the disparity on how things are systematized and communicated outside of the Bible. My exposure to the doctrine of election was through R.C. Sproul, who I owe a great deal of my early theological acumen to. Sproul lead me to the many of the great works I have come to cherish over the years: the Westminster Confession, Reformed Dogmatics by Bavinck, various Systematic Theologies, and a handful of others. Reflecting back upon my introduction to this doctrine (and in my camp, the Reformed faith), I have now come to realize the way in which this doctrine (and many others) was presented to me was not incorrect doctrinally, but rather incorrect in mode. In other words, the way in which the doctrine was described was foreign from the way the Bible actually dealt with the doctrine.

The Communication Problem of Theology

Theology is often painted as being cold, heady, and merely intellectual; and if we were to crack open Hodge’s Systematic Theology, sadly, you may find the accusations warranted. This is not to say that there is not much to cherish there, it is simply to say that theology often done in a systematic way does not engage the doctrines as the Bible often does—through story, drama, and historical narrative. In this case, election was always presented to be in this cold manner: God chooses some and doesn’t choose others, based upon his sheer foreknowledge, grace, and sovereignty. As soon as one states their position, debates roar, heels get dug in, and rarely, if ever, does fruitful conversation follow. How can we avoid the traps of describing a doctrine, that is so beautiful, without getting into endless debates that seem to harden rather than soften positions?

Cue Lesslie Newbigin, who will have no problem demonstrating that the way Westerners often discuss the doctrine of election is through individualism and pragmatism, rather than through the biblical storyline. If you were to ask an aspiring theologian (someone like myself in college, who had merely read the popular level writings of Sproul and Packer) where they turn to defend their doctrine of election, many would either go to Romans 9 or Ephesians 1. Do these passages speak to election? Absolutely. But if we jump straight there, we miss one of the most crucial texts for understanding election and its purpose in the world: Genesis 12.

Genesis 12: A Missional Doctrine of Election

In this passage, God calls a man named Abram to flee his country to the land that the Lord will show him. This is the beginning of the election or the calling of a people, namely, the nation of Israel. God has selected one man and one family from all the face of the earth as his chosen vessel. Now, the way in which we discuss election, the conversation may lead to various rabbit trails. Why did he choose Abram and not another family in the Ancient Near East? Should they have not have the choice to respond? Is it fair?

While the questions are perhaps warranted, the biblical storyline is not interested in answering the questions. Rather, Genesis 12 is going to answer the question we aren’t asking: What is God’s purpose in electing Abram? The answer comes in verse 2—Abram was chosen not so the blessing of election may terminate on his family, but may extend to the whole world. In other words, to use the biblical langue, he was blessed in order to be a blessing. Election (and salvation for that matter) is often extracted from the purpose and the biblical storyline and is reduced to merely discussions about who God chooses and who he doesn’t. Here is where Newbigin is so helpful:

“Too often election is understood strictly in terms of its benefits and the blessings of God’s salvation. Election, in this misunderstanding, is only for privilege and not for responsibility; election is so that the people of God might enjoy salvation, not be a means of salvation for the world.” –

Newbigin, Household of God, 111, emphasis mine.

You see, for Newbigin, election is not merely for the individual/family, it is also for the purpose of bringing the blessing of God to the rest of the world. Election then is directly tied to mission. And what is this mission? Newbigin would describe the mission of God nothing less than the cosmic renewal of all creation (for Newbigin, renewal could also be interchanged with salvation):

“The only way of proceeding in reveling and accomplishing the cosmic and corporate salvation of the end is by choosing a community to be the nucleus of his renewing work. God begins with some community, knits them back together, and restores the creational relationships fractured in the fall. He begins with a reconciled community and then incorporates others from outside into this community. In short, God’s people have been chosen to be reconciled to God, to each other, and to the nonhuman creation and to draw others into that reconciliation.”

Goheen, The Church and its Vocation, 31.

Therefore, the doctrine of election is not some cold, static, and distant doctrine where God simply chooses some and leaves others. Election is about the reconciliation of a people that are now given a mission to invite and call others into that community, which has its final goal in the restoration of all things. Again, Goheen notes ,”A missionary doctrine of election understands that God’s choice of a people is not simply for the town sake but also for the sake of the world.” Therefore, to be one of the elect—to be a Christian—is to be incorporated into the mission of God and to “bear God’s reconciling purpose for his whole world.”

This is what I think Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). Paul was able to endure hardships and suffering so that those outside the fold of God may be welcomed into the reconciliation offered by the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, he may never have known who the elect were, but he knew that God would use his life (and the life of the church) to bring about the fulfillment of the cosmic salvation that he purposed.

Therefore, in this way, the biblical storyline informs and undergirds our doctrine of election. It is not merely about the choice of God—it is also about the purpose of God in election—bringing about the restoration, renewal, and shalom to the entire earth that the elect currently experience.

Bible, Theology

Why Sometimes a Literal Translation Is Not Sufficient

June 24, 2019

The preservation of the biblical text is a tenant of orthodox Christianity. Since the Bible was written not in English but in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, scholars have often wrestled with how to translate the biblical text in a way that is both faithful to the original while at the same time communicating relevantly to its audience. Regardless whether one is translating a biblical text or a non-biblical text, translation is an incredibly difficult task. We are all aware that certain languages have particular phrases, idioms, and word pictures that are simply hard to translate, despite the translators best attempts.

In the English language, we are privileged with several excellent translations, such as the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New International Version (NIV), and several others. These translations are often considered literal translations, or, more specifically, formal-equivalence translations, by which translators attempt to translate each word in the original language to an equivalent word in the English language. A different translation method is called the dynamic-equivalence approach, which seeks to message/meaning of the original language into equivalent modern English. For conservative evangelicals, we tend to pride ourselves on choosing and reading translations that are deemed literal, implying the preservation of the very words of the original.

Yet, the reality is that while often we are forced to choose between the two translation methods—because of the complexity of translation work—both approaches are actually appropriate in certain circumstances. In other words, there are instances when a literal translation, while correct in theory, is not sufficient in actually communicating the original meaning.

Luke 22:31-32: A Case Study

An analysis of Luke 22:31-32 shows this premise in action. Consider the rendering that the King James Version (KJV) puts forth:

31 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: 32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

Now, look at the way the ESV translate the verse, which is the translation I often use:

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Now, a comparative reading of the two texts would seem that both are virtually identical, except for the updated language in the ESV; but there are some difficulties with the ESV’s rendering. You see, the King James was written in a time in which English speakers still used the second plural form (you) and a second singular form (thy/thine), which means that the KJV can actually translate the text in a more accurate manner. You will notice in the KJV’s translation, the you (ὑμᾶς) is plural in verse 31, whereas in verse 32, Jesus begins to address Peter specifically with thee, thy and thou (σοῦ). If you read again the ESV’s translation, you will notice that in English, both verse 31 and 32 simply read “you.” While this technically is the literal translation (since we don’t have a plural you in modern English, unless your from the South and you use “y’all”), it is not sufficient for the intended meaning of the text. In this way, the formal-equivalence method fails us.

Turning to a different translation, we notice that the NIV actually captures the original meaning of the text through the latter approach (the dynamic-equivalence method):

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

You will notice that the NIV appropriately captures the meaning of the text by translating the plural “you” in verse 31 with “all of you,” while translating the singular “you” in verse 32 with “you” and “your.” Proponents of literal translation may fault the NIV for adding words into the text since the words “all” are not in the text. Yet, the evidence suggests that the NIV is actually more faithful in rendering the intended meaning of the Greek. In this way, literal biblical translations, while helpful in many scenarios, are also unhelpful in other scenarios.