What is the central premise of the Christian faith? For most Christians, a well-packaged presentation about sin and the death of Jesus providing forgiveness would be customary. Perhaps others would say that God has communicated to us in the Bible. Still, others would point to a biblical worldview that shapes morality. With so many streams of emphasis among Christians, what is the central doctrine of the Christian faith? In his latest book, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, Marcus Peter Johnson, professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, proclaims with gusto the driving doctrine of the entire Bible and the Christian faith: union with Christ.Continue Reading…
In the wake of a global pandemic, millions of Americans have been thrust into a storm-tossed world of trauma, uncertainty, and hopelessness. For many, life before the pandemic seems both like one year ago and five years ago. Even for those who profess the Christian message of resurrection hope, days and weeks have dragged on, leading to despair and hopelessness. While we lament the ongoing deaths of Covid-19 in the world at large, we must not forget that Covid-19 has also taken another drastic toll on American life: our mental well-being. In 2019, 11% of American adults reported struggling with some form of depression and/or anxiety; that figure jumped to an alarming rate of 41% in 2021. For young adults (ages 18-24), the figures are evening more staggering: 56% of young adults have struggled with either depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or suicidal ideation. When two weeks of shutdowns turns into months, and months into quarters, and quarters into a whole year—what do we need most this Easter season?
Theology in the Abstract
Many Pastors may be tempted to preach on the hope of the resurrection in such a way to deal with the diminishing hope that is present in our world. We could preach that the resurrection is the ultimate source of hope and healing for a world gone awry. Because Christ has conquered the grave, he too can conquer even the darkest days of hopelessness in the midst of a pandemic. While all these statements are true, at times, these messages echo the hollow proclamations of secular societies that proclaim, “Andrà tutto bene” (Everything is gonna be fine). We don’t need theology in the abstract—messages of an ethereal and theoretical resurrection. We need a living, breathing, vital hope—Jesus Christ, the Resurrected One. What we need is not merely the hope of resurrection, but the person of Jesus who is risen (remember the old Easter maxim: He is risen! He is risen indeed!).
Many times, in Christian circles, we have a tendency to speak of the resurrection as if it has no connection to our present lives. The resurrection provides the downpayment by which God will right every wrong, gives us hope that Jesus has conquered death, and provides a way for us to see glory even in the midst of pain. Again, all well and true, but still very distance from our day-to-day lives; and more importantly, distant from Jesus, the One in whom resurrection actually flows through. We don’t need a Christianized version of “we will get through this,” rather, we need to find our hope in the one person outside of us that can provide real, substantial hope to our broken world.
In other words, more than simply, “the resurrection is true,” we need, more than ever, “Jesus is alive.” Jesus is alive even now, ruling and reigning over every square inch of the cosmos. Jesus is alive right now, governing and sustaining the smallest molecule to the largest galaxy. Jesus is alive right now in his gathered church, proclaiming the good news through Word, deed, and sacrament. Too many times our message of hope in the resurrection is nothing more than a spiritualized version of Bob Marley, “Don’t worry. Be Happy.”
The New Testament knows nothing of an impersonal resurrection with an abstract hope—it knows the resurrected and conquering Savior who says, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:17-18).” Again, our hope is not in an idea of resurrection but in the One in who actually resurrected. What a world starved for hope needs is not platitudes and cliches about the unpredictable possibility of hope (i.e. we will get through this) but a deep and abiding trust in Jesus who actually gives us his promise that one day he will return to renew, restore, and redeem all things. In this Easter season, anchor your lives to the resurrected Christ, not simply the hope of resurrection.
It seems that every week on my social media feeds, broader evangelical leaders are decrying some new doctrine, fad, or cultural ideology. Wielding their words as weapons of war, these denouncements are seen as heralding and defending the truth, as 2 Tim 2:15 exhorts pastors to do. My problem is not with leaders defending the truth but in the manner that they do so: primarily in the form of binary thinking. Rather than affirming various aspects that are true because of common grace, evangelical leaders decry the entire secular ideology because it does not fit within a conservative systematic theological textbook.
A famous church-history pastor/scholar once said, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.” No, church, this is not a Coexist bumper sticker where we simply live in some harmonious relationship with all beliefs and religions; this is simply affirming aspects of truth in a world full of evil because God is the ultimate source of truth. Even though the sinfulness of man is on display everywhere, common grace and the echoes of Eden break through the cracks of a secular society so that moments of truth will inevitably be a part of every secular theory. For those who are skeptical about the above statement, perhaps we should realize that the author was none other than the theological bulwark, John Calvin. In this respect, it is helpful to quote Calvin at length:
Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appearsInstitutes of the Christian Religion, II.2.15.
Binary Thinking In Our Times
To put some skin on this theoretical skeleton, right now, presidents of the major Southern Baptist seminaries are decrying Critical Race Theory as inconsistent with the biblical narrative. Keep in mind, Southern Baptists still represent the majority of Protest Evangelical Christians in the United States and thus their leaders will naturally reflect and influence where the denomination lands. My question to such leaders is, “Does heralding the truth look like decrying cultural ideologies or would it be more helpful to find elements of truth that are consistent with the biblical narrative that helps you paint a better picture of humanity through the biblical worldview?”
Am I in total disagreement with these leaders? Absolutely not (again, binary thinking would push us to say, “These leaders are dumb!”). Are there aspects of Critical Race Theory that are frightening and wrong? Absolutely. I wholeheartedly disagree with Marx’s solution for the problem, that we simply need to replace the power structure between the oppressed and the oppressor. Because of human sin, those who are in power will inevitably oppress. The solution can not be found where the problem lies. At the same time, can we affirm some very valuable truths in this cultural theory? Can we agree that racism is an egregious act, one that violates the imago Dei? Can we agree that there are elements of oppression between classes, races, sexes, etc? Absolutely. Affirming such truths is not affirming the entire theory of Critical Race; rather, it is highlighting what Calvin notes, that we can read “profane authors” and find gems of truth hidden in the rubble of cultural brokenness.
Before we get hung up on the details of Critical Race Theory (which, for the sake of time and argumentation, I am overly simplifying), I am seeking to address the broader cultural trend among Protest Evangelicals to only reject rather than to affirm and approve on what has been written. Evangelicalism often falls into the trap of binary thinking: believing that we must wholeheartedly agree or disagree with a certain group or ideology. Binary thinking does not allow us to find elements of truth within the world, producing a system of “us-vs-them” thinking in the church.
A Way Forward
Perhaps one of the most compelling voices of non-binary thinking is Scott Sauls, a Presbyterian Pastor in Nashville, TN. During the tumultuous season of the election, Sauls wrote, “If I can find nothing to critique about the political party that I support, and nothing to affirm about the opposing political party, then it’s probably the case that I’m conflating my partisan politics with my Christianity.” Surely many Christians hav fallen into the political binary trap, believing that the “other side” is completely wrong and our party is right. Binary thinking produces Christians who cannot affirm any aspects of truth in the opposing view. How then should we approach such cultural topics in a world full of deceit and evil?
We should follow in the steps of men like Sauls and Calvin, who can affirm truths in “profane authors.” In order to do that, we must be grounded in the biblical story, finding ourselves as part of God’s great drama in the world. We need to understand who our God is, to understand what God has communicated very clearly in the Bible, and to have our lives saturated in the words of the Scriptures. When one can view the world through a biblical lens, we are able to parse through the junk to find the nuggets of truth that exist because of common grace in the world. Sadly, I believe that some Christians fall into the trap of binary thinking because they are unable to discern what is true and false due to their lack of biblical understanding.
When our lives are grounded in the biblical narrative, we will become people of nuance rather than binary thinking. Will we be able to affirm everything? Absolutely not. But we will be able to affirm some elements of truth, and we can use those as building blocks for telling a better story in God’s world. For example, in the discussion of racism, particularly in America, we can affirm various aspects of Critical Race Theory (such as the extent and damage of racism) while also casting a better vision of how one deals with racism in this world. Using the common grace truths found within a cultural ideology will allow you to affirm and point towards the ultimate resolution that is found in the cross, resurrection, ascension, and second return of Christ.
For those unaware, the house of House of Representatives is voting on the Equality Act, which would expand the 1964 Civil Rights Act to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. For those with a conservative bent, both politically and religiously, the concern is not only about the role of sexuality in modern discourse but the fact that, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, “it would override the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration act, which gives people a way to challenge government requirements that they feel impinge on their religious rights.” Many conservative Christians have been weary of encroaching sexual ethics because of their religious and spiritual convictions, and the Equality Act is one more nail in the coffin.Continue Reading…
Deconstruction is all around us, not merely with physical buildings, but with cultural, philosophical, and theological worldviews. It seems that every month, another piece of cultural heritage or identity is torn down or deconstructed due to the perceived offense or insensibility to a particular bent. But what happens when a culture is fueled by deconstruction yet lacks contractors to sufficiently rebuild what they are destroying?
For those unaware, what exactly is deconstructionism? Deconstructionism is not a new concept but rather, one that has risen to a prominent spot in the cultural West. Those who adhere (and even those who unaware that they adhere to its tenets) believe that we have a responsibility to critique, challenge, and if necessary, remove (or deconstruct) any form of philosophical system, hierarchy, physical memorabilia, or quite frankly, anything at all, particularly those things that are offensive, insensitive, or out-of-touch with modern society.Continue Reading…
Many a Christian apologist and evangelist can be seen standing above their opponent—either physically shouting down at people or intellectually snubbing one another in arrogance veiled in defending the truth. Too often, apologetics and evangelism are done in a tone and posture that is inconsistent with the Gospel and the God that they proclaim. Is this the only way to do evangelism? Is this the only way to engage a skeptical world with the good news of Jesus? What do I mean by this?
Apologetics, rather than being a place where we meet non-Christians in their doubts, is a place where we merely proclaim the truth of the Christian faith. Attached with this can be an attitude of, “We are right, you are wrong. Believe what we believe.” While objectively we can say, this is a true statement, it fails to capture the nuance and complexity of human life, especially viewed from the angle of common grace.Continue Reading…
For many students of the Bible, and particularly of the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:19-22 stands as one of the most difficult passages to interpret and understand. Christians and scholars throughout church history have struggled with various interpretations surrounding what exactly happened to Jesus after he was crucified. In fact, the great Reformer Martin Luther once said about this passage, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
While we cannot be certain and dogmatic of any position, we can give our best exegetical analysis of what is happening in this text. The purpose of this paper is to bring clarity to the predominant issues in the text.
Two problems arise from a cursory reading of 1 Peter 3. First, what does it mean that Jesus went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison? Who are these spirits? What does it mean that Jesus “went”? How does the death of Jesus relate to the story of Noah? Second, what does it mean that Peter says, “baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you”? How does the story of Noah provide a typology for water baptism in the New Testament? How does baptism intersect with salvation? In order to fully argue my position on these two issues, a holistic approach must be taken, meaning that we will examine each issue exegetically, theologically, and historically.Continue Reading…
Many of us are ending the year tired, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. The global pandemic has caused a multitude of losses: friendships, time with family, jobs, opportunities, graduations, rituals. The ‘”New Year, New Me” facade is glaringly absent as the hopelessness continues on for another year. Even for some of you who are seeking to turn over the new year leaf, eventually we have to come face-to-face with the trauma and suffering that we have endured this year. If you do not have the language of lament, you will be woefully deficient in dealing with the multiple heartbreaks from the last year.
Thankfully, God has not left us alone in our pain and sorrow—God has given us language to deal with our trauma: the language of lament. In fact, the wisdom literature is primarily comprised of lament language, which gives the people of God freedom to express their grief and sorrow towards God and to one another. Because of the effects of sin on the world, part and parcel of being human is dealing with pain and suffering. Lament gives you language to properly grieve the loss while at the same time trusting God in the pain.Continue Reading…
Every year, I work through a slough of books; some are good, some are great, some are poor. Outside of reading the Bible, reading good books is one of the primary ways that my affections are cultivated for Jesus. Furthermore, reading good books not only cultivates my relationship with God, it helps me make sense of the world that we live in, gives me language for the emotions that I am feeling, and stimulates my intellect in a way that only books can. Without further adieu, here were my favorite books in 2020 (in no particular order).
Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund
For many Christians, Ortlund’s latest book will be on their best of list for 2020. In fact, World Magazine called Gentle and Lowly “the most accessible theology book of 2020,” which is no surprise to me at all. Dane Ortlund does an amazing job of combining both theology and practice in a book that is both warm and pastoral, while also retaining its challenging and convicting tone. I found myself awestruck of God’s love for me in Christ as I turned from page to page. This book drained my highlighters as I could not stop underlining the nuggets that seemed to be endless. If you are to read one book in 2021, please pick up this book.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
Carl Trueman does an excellent job of showing the progression of thought that has taken place since the 19th century to the present cultural moment. How did Western society move so radically to be a culture dominated by sex and a progressive interpretation of sex? For those who have been completed confused by the drastic cultural changes surrounding sex, look no further than Trueman’s book for your answers. Carl Trueman is both scholarly and approachable in this slightly intimidating book. Furthermore, I found the tone gentle, compassionate, and understanding; there was never a hint of condescension or arrogance. While for the average reader, this book may be challenging in its philosophical arguments, it is nevertheless one of the most important books of our age.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
One of the greatest gifts of 2020 was the release of the broadway musical Hamilton on Disney+. My children can testify: the soundtrack has been playing all year long. As a history buff myself, I found Chernow’s work fascinating, engaging, and inspiring. For those who are interested more in the life of Hamilton, you will not be disappointed by this lengthy but enjoyable read of his life.
1 Peter by Karen H. Jobes
As I preached through 1 Peter this year, I found Karen H. Jobe’s commentary so helpful. In fact, I found it so helpful that I would recommend laymen to read the book as devotional content. Jobes, like any scholar would, dives into the weeds of academia at times, but the majority of her commentary is spent in rich, Christ-centered content that would encourage any Christian. For those preaching through 1 Peter soon or for those looking for book that will help you take a deeper dive into one specific book, Jobes’ commentary on 1 Peter is the one for you.
The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson
Peterson models the type of pastor that I want to be: gentle, compassionate, humble, present. Peterson’s book gave me freedom to admit one thing: to pastor and to write are two sides of the same coin for my calling. Peterson shows through his own life how he was called and formed as a pastor. One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.
The Care of Souls by Harold Senkbeil
Senkbeil’s work on pastoral ministry is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read on the calling of a pastor. In an age where pastors are busy building their platforms and the pastorate is filled with celebrities rather than shepherds, this work is undervalued in a culture that does not value pastoring as it used to. What should a pastor be doing week-in and week-out? Caring, praying, discipling, encouraging, visiting. Senkbeil hit it out of the park with this one.
Serving as a pastor is one of the most rewarding and difficult tasks that I have ever been faced with. On the one hand, I am one of you – I am a fellow disciple learning to love God in a broken world. I am a sinner in desperate need of the grace of God alongside every one of you. I am a sheep. On the other hand, I am your leader, your shepherd. I stand above you— not in a prideful or arrogant sense—but in a sense of leadership. I must watch fervently where we are headed, to observe the roadblocks and dangers coming our way. I must bear the load of our collective safety as we navigate a world full of spiritual enemies. This, of course, is done under the guidance of the one True Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Due to my humanity, God has uniquely created me to shepherd in a way that suits my gifts and desires. For many pastors, relational conversations are the medium they want to utilize to shepherd their people; for others, it is primarily the pulpit. Personally, I discovered early on, that I need to lead primarily through preaching and writing. Like Eugene Peterson, I will not and cannot drive a wedge between being a pastor and a writer – they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, in order for me to pastor well, I must write.
My hope is that you may invest the time to read, not because I need an audience, but because I hope writing will be one of the main ways that I pastor you. Personally, I can communicate complex truths in a more helpful manner via writing than speaking. My hope is that as we journey together as sheep, God may use my writing to equip you to do the work of the ministry, here in Las Cruces and to the ends of the earth. Soli deo Gloria.
A Secular World
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word secular? For many—particularly for those from a Christian background—think in terms of secular versus religious. For example, there are secular schools and religious schools. Perhaps others consider anything outside the religious system. For many, secular conveys that which is wrong or evil with the world. Yet, we should not abandon the word or simply use it in a negative context. This is where Charles Taylor is incredibly helpful, the most prominent modern philosopher.
Charles Taylor is a trained philosopher by trade, a Roman Catholic by profession, and the author of one of the best philosophical works in recent generations entitled A Secular Age. Many have attempted to slay Taylor’s magnum opus but have failed. Not only is Taylor’s work long, it is philosophically dense. Thankfully, men such as James K.A. Smith have undertaken the task to translate and modernize Taylor so that the average person can understand the meat of his arguments. In 2014, James K.A. Smith published How (Not) To be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, which gives a philosophical primer to those looking to dip their toes in waters of Charles Taylor.Continue Reading…