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Posts Tagged ‘covenant theology’


IOut of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. A Broken Mother's Search for Hope. became familiar with Christopher Yuan’s story when my wife gave me a copy of Out of a Far Country written by Christopher and his mother Angela. It is the story of his coming out of the closet, dropping out of dental school and pursuing a gay lifestyle, his parents’ initial rejection, their conversion and subsequent pursuit of Christopher and his conversion after being imprisoned as a drug dealer.

In the course of that story he mentioned the concept he called ‘holy sexuality’. At the time, I hoped he’d develop that further. Over the years I was disappointed that he didn’t. His name would arise periodically as a wave of controversies regarding how the church is to interact with people experiencing same-sex attraction arose.

The Revoice controversy was perhaps the worst of the lot. In many ways it seemed to be an exercise in talking past one another. At least that was my experience of many of those discussions and debates. These controversies reveal that the Church still needs to talk about how to faithfully and effectively serve those who experience same-sex attractions.

Recently I discovered that he’d released Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story in the fall of 2018. I bought a copy for myself, and by faith one for the church library. It was my hope that this could be helpful in helping us work through these issues.

He tackles a number of the issues that lay at the heart of the various controversies. It is not a big book, so it sticks to the point and does not overwhelm with information. At times he interacts (briefly) with opposing views. That can be too brief at times, for instance his discussion of Matthew Vines on the issue of ‘bad fruit’.

He begins with the reality of God’s Story which is intended to help us to understand and shape our story. This refers to the history of redemption (creation ==> fall ==> redemption ==> consummation) found in Scripture intended to help us to understand life and the world. He moves into questions about identity, the image of God, and the reality of sin. He then introduces holy sexuality and dives into the issues of temptation, desire, orientation and then marriage and singleness. The book concludes with how to assist those who struggle with sexual sin in terms of sanctification, discipleship, and outreach. As you can see, the breadth of material covered is impressive.

TImage result for rosaria butterfieldhe book begins with a forward by his ‘big sister’ Rosaria Butterfield. There is some irony there. She was a lesbian professor/academic who became a Christian in the process of writing a book critical of the Religious Right due to the friendship that developed with a Presbyterian pastor and his wife. She left academia and ended up marrying a pastor. She regrets the work she did in laying the groundwork for the changes in our culture we’ve seen in the last 15 years regarding marriage and benefits.

He is a man who was gay, dropping out of dental school to basically live the party life. To support himself he became a drug dealer and ended up in prison. He saw a Bible in the trash and grabbed it because he was bored. He became a Christian and after getting out of prison went back to school and entered academia. He remains single, experiencing same-sex desires but seeking to live out a holy sexuality.

Rosaria’s forward covers some ground he will as well: union in Christ, the development of sexual orientation in the 19th century, that the real issue is not homosexuality but unbelief (which keeps us in Adam).

“The idol of our historical epoch is this: your sexual desires define you, determine you, and should always delight you.” Rosaria Butterfield

Yuan begins with discussing paradigms. Our identity shouldn’t be based on sinful practices, or what we can’t do (anymore). He expresses his frustration with the dynamics of the discussions, particularly the heterosexual-homosexual paradigm. I share his frustration. Between Christians as least, we should try to use biblical language. Too often I find people, both conservative and liberal, using cultural language for a very theological discussion.

He shares the story of Andy who was a classmate of his who was married. Eventually Andy left his wife because despite his prayers, God didn’t take those same-sex desires away. We’ve all known a guy like Andy. I know a few. Some left the faith without getting married. Others left their wives and their faith, leaving a trail of wreckage because they had to be “true to themselves”.

At some point people started to confuse their desires with their identity. Some conservatives further this despite their intentions in how they shape the gospel differently for people who practice homosexual sex. What many people with same-sex attractions hear is “If I am my desires, then who I am, not just my actions, are condemned. As I continue to feel these desires, I must still be condemned.” People like Andy are tempted to change their convictions because they confuse those desires with identity.

He notes that until the mid-1800’s, sexuality was about behavior, not orientation or identity. Carl Westphal was one of the earliest to use homosexuality to describe a person’s nature rather than behavior. Yuan does some philosophizing about the rise of identity through Romanticism and nihilism.

Sola experientia (‘experience alone’) won over sola Scripture (‘Scripture alone’).”

We do need to have a biblical anthropology, and speak consistently with that. I agree with Yuan and Butterfield that due to our union in Christ our identity is Christ. Where I ‘depart’ from them is in mandating that people speak the same way. Part of the Revoice controversy was about using the term “gay” or “homosexual Christian”. They were following Wesley Hill who says in his book Washed and Waiting that Christian refers to his identity and gay/homosexual his struggle (page 22). I don’t get bent out of shape when I understand that. Not the preferred terminology, but he’s often communicating with people who aren’t Christians and don’t typically speak about same-sex desire (they use the language of identity and orientation).

This is a practical difference, not a theological difference. In her book Openness Unhindered she has a chapter, Conflict: When Sisters Disagree, about this capacity to love people who speak differently. But her comments about the PCA and Revoice appear to have a very different approach. I’m a little frustrated with my sister. It’s okay- she’s still my sister!

YuImage result for christopher yuanan brings us back to Genesis for the imago dei and the reality of sin. These are foundational concepts that need to be addressed in these discussions. He speaks covenantally about our fall in Adam. We are guilty of our covenant head’s disobedience. We now have a fallen nature. This moves us into the reality of indwelling sin or a sinful nature. If we are off here, then the rest of the discussion will really miss the mark. If we make the wrong diagnosis, we’ll apply the wrong cure. This cuts both ways, for the culture war conservative and the progressive accommodationist.

To a sinner, sin feels natural and normal. This is because we have a darkened understanding and our thinking is futile (Rom. 1). ALL sinners have sinful distortions of our sexuality. We all want to live beyond the boundaries God has established for our sexual behavior in one way or another. Our problem is sin (the condition or state), not simply a particular sin. The person engaging in same-sex activity also sins in other ways. The issue is not simply same-sex desires and activity but sin (Adam’s and their own). Salvation is about sin, not simply sexuality. The goal is not heterosexuality but living in obedience to God through the grace of God.

Here is part of where things get murky in many debates I’ve had with people. I think Yuan is helpful. Here is some of what he says within this biblical framework:

“I’m not saying the capacity to have same-sex attractions or temptations is actual sin. However, the concept of original and indwelling sin fits every description of same-sex sexual orientation. Original sin is an unchosen condition, and indwelling sin is a persistent pattern of sinful desires or behaviors.”

He will later draw an important distinction between temptation and desire. Here is the distinction between a temptation to commit a sinful act and committing a sin. Some see the temptation itself as sin. Butterfield has a few confusing paragraphs in Openness Unhindered; confusing because they seem contradictory (first she says temptation isn’t sin but homosexual lust is- she could be using those terms to refer to temptation and inordinate desire respectively and then we’d be in agreement- see below). I wish Yuan spent time parsing John Owens seeming distinction between temptation and falling into temptation (which I think is that same distinction).

“Again: temptation is not a sin. But what you do with it may be.” Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered, pp. 83

“In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore, patterns of temptation can never be sanctified.” Rosaria, pp. 123.

“Moving up the scale, homosexual or heterosexual lust is a sin- even the unintentional and persistent kind that springs up like a hiccup or a reflex.” Rosaria, pp. 123

This doesn’t make same-sex temptation okay or neutral. Nor is it ‘sanctifiable’. If acting upon such temptation is sin (it is!), then we should mortify those desires of the flesh as Paul tells us to do (Rom. 6 & 8). We are to make no provision for them because we’ve put on Christ (Rom. 13).

In some discussions I’ve brought up temptations to commit adultery or engage in pre-marital sex (heterosexual lust). Some who ardently oppose homosexuality, and are critical of organizations like Revoice say those temptations are ‘normal’, or ‘not contrary to nature’ as if one gets a pass because those are heterosexual sins. Such a view is quite unbiblical. Yuan confronts that common, faulty, view. Holy sexuality is not for homosexuals alone but for all Christians. We are to be chaste outside of marriage and faithful in marriage.

“Chastity is more than simply abstention from extra-marital sex; it conveys purity and holiness. Faithfulness is more than merely maintaining chastity and avoiding illicit sex; it conveys covenantal commitment.”

Yuan then focuses on temptation. This section could use some more work. For instance:

“As God, Jesus did not sin and in fact is incapable of sinning (this is call impeccability).”

He doesn’t address Jesus as man, who specifically obeyed as man in our place for our salvation. There is a huge mystery here that Yuan pretty much ignores. It was as man, additionally, that he may be made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10). Jesus resisted sin “all the way” while we often give up well before that. We don’t really know how powerful temptation is.

But Yuan correctly reminds us that as fallen humans (despite being united to Christ) we will experience temptation. This includes same-sex temptation (something some others I know seem to reject based on their understanding of regeneration). The issue is not whether you will be tempted, but what you do with it no matter what the temptation is. We are to be vigilant and put it to death!

He then moves from James 1 to James 4 to discuss desire, or inordinate desire. For many, the same-sex desires are not primarily erotic. It is about romance and being together. He notes that in many lesbian relationships romance drives the relationship, not sexual desire. This means that the problem isn’t just about sex, but the inordinate desire for a person of the same sex: friendship gone wild. Here he draws more upon Augustine than Owen. People can fall prey to “co-dependency, relational idolatry, sinful fantasies” and more.

“Nonsexual romantic desires are essentially yearning to become one with and be permanently and exclusively united to someone we hold dear.”

His discussion of marriage is short but helpful. Sadly some take “it is not good for man to be alone” out of context and make marriage about companionship. Marriage is about far more than companionship. It is about fulfilling the creation mandate together. Yuan gets that and explains that (citing Christopher Ash in the process). When we make marriage about companionship, the end of loneliness, we more quickly make marriage idolatrous (or disposable when this primary ‘goal’ isn’t met). Marriage becomes about me and my feelings, not about covenantal union to fulfill God’s mission. It isn’t less than companionship, but far more. Marriage is about someone who is the same but different. The same creature but the opposite gender. Like but not like.

Yuan also upholds the dignity and goodness of singleness. All people are single for much of their lives. They are not less than whole people. Jesus was not less of a person because he was single. At times in this chapter he seems to display some characteristics of New Covenant Theology rather than Covenant Theology. Yes, we must be born again but we still have the truth that “this promise is for you and your children” (Gen. 17 ==> Acts 2). God works through generations as well as in individuals. I also disagree with some of his implications about 1 Corinthians 7 while agreeing with his main point. Singleness is not a lesser state or a death sentence.

Singles should be able to have vibrant relationships with their spiritual family. Couples and families need to do better in caring for single adults and inviting them into the web of relationships. Singles (and the infertile) can have spiritual descendants through evangelism and discipleship. God provides plenty of meaning in life for those who are not married. Being single is a calling all have at some point (sometimes more than once), a calling we can walk faithfully in because of the indwelling Spirit.

He then moves back to holy sexuality and the process of sanctification. Justified and sanctified Christians experience temptations. Some still experience same-sex temptations. We are already new creatures in Christ, but not yet completely new. We are in process, in part because God is humbling us and one way to humble us is the presence of temptations.

“… because of our union with Christ, we can hate our sin without hating ourselves.”

He then deals with some bad theology by Matthew Vines. Vines interprets “bad fruit” to mean physical harm or emotional despair. Theology that produces hardship and distress is false doctrine, in his view. Therefore because so many homosexuals struggle with suicide, the teaching of the church must be wrong. Yuan takes him quickly to task. “Bad fruit” is sin or the lack of repentance. There is no true discipleship without denying oneself, which is painful. He also takes on Jen Hatmaker who blames so much suicidal ideation among gay youth for the church’s historic (biblical) stance on same-sex relationships. Yuan notes studies in secular countries, quite accepting of same-sex relationships, which also have similarly high rates of suicide among homosexuals. The problem is not the church’s teaching.

He moves into reminding us to be compassionate toward those experiencing same-sex desires, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. His parents rejected him before they were Christians and then loved and pursued him after they converted. He brings us to the parable of the Good Samaritan, reminding us that the original audience were to see themselves as the beaten man. We’ve received compassion from Jesus Christ, and compassion we should show.

He also provides some guidance for outreach. Often we need to listen and ask questions. They often believe we hate them. Like his parents, we may have to love them for a long time in tangible ways. He also provides some practical advice for when someone opens up to us.

Lastly he provides some basic instruction on discipleship. He pushes that you need a mentor, not simply a friend or counselor. This means that the local church, and ordinary means of grace, are central. Yes, we need peers but we also need older more Christians speaking into our lives, challenging us and calling us to deny ourselves and follow Jesus. We need to have the right goal in mind: holiness, not heterosexuality.

At the end of the book there is an 8-session study guide to work through the material. He wants this book to be helpful to people and churches. I think it will be helpful for the Church to sort through ministry to people with same-sex desires. I hope it will help us to sit and listen to one another, understand what people mean, identify the common ground (rather than assume it or the areas of disagreement) so we can move forward helpfully. Our desire should be to see people caught in this sin come to saving faith in Christ, and then to walk faithfully in holy sexuality for their good and His glory. This is a book worth reading.

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When I went to seminary, I was fairly ignorant. Some might argue that I still am. They gave usĀ  a series of questions so they could understand the background of their new students. One was whether I held to Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology.

I was in a quandary. As a new believer I had read some Hal Lindsey (never a good idea) and embraced Dispensationalism in its popularized form. But over time I began to have serious questions concerning its validity as I continued to read Scripture. By the time I showed up in Orlando, I was not a Dispensationalist.

But I had no idea what Covenant Theology was. I would learn.

When I got to the congregation I pastor here in the desert, there was a large number of small pink books on a shelf. No, not books by Pink. Pink books.

The book was A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology by Richard Belcher. Before using it as a give-away, I thought I had better read it. Was it really a comparison, or was it a polemical book? That is important. We sometimes have people who begin to attend who are new to what we believe. I don’t want to turn them off unnecessarily. If I started to hand this book out, I wanted to be sure it was fair and accurate. So I finally read it.

The book is quite short (46 pages including the bibliography). His main point is that everyone has a theology, and most Protestant embrace one of these two theological systems (it was published in 1986, and since then New Covenant Theology has grown in popularity).

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One of the things I don’t like about buying books on line is that you really can’t flip through it (Amazon is trying) and see if it is what you are looking for in the first place. The Walk by Stephen Smallman is one of the books I wish I’d been able to flip through. It was recommended in another book about discipleship. Since he’s in the same denomination in which I serve it, unlike the book I had read, would come from a more consistently covenantal perspective. This is not to say this is a bad book, because it isn’t. It just isn’t the book I had thought it would be. I was looking for a more theoretical book that had application. This is a book intended to actually be used to disciple new and renewed followers of Jesus. I guess I should have noticed that subtitle. But I do have a good resource to recommend to those, or use with those, who want or need to be discipled. One of the strengths is the progression that he uses from basics to discipleship thru the gospel on to mission. The goal is not information accumulation, but growth in grace, sanctification into greater obedience and maturity to disciple others and join Jesus in His mission (2 Cor. 5).

“If ‘going to heaven’ is the key objective of evangelism, perhaps that begins to tell us why discipleship is viewed as optional by so many ‘converts.'”

It is a 12 lesson course that could be used in SS, or throughout a year in a small group. He has a reading plan that goes with each lesson which he refers to often (largely Mark and Romans). He also has a reading plan in an appendix that can be used afterwards. We aren’t talking a verse to proof text. These are longer chunks that coincide with the material in the chapter. They build on one another to develop the context of the larger text. It gets people reading the Bible, since this is a large part of discipleship. (more…)

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Some books are written and read as labors of love. Some books are written and read as “necessary evils”. The author wishes they did not have to write the book, and you wish you didn’t have to read it. Sometimes their labor of love is your “necessary evil”.

The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis by Guy Prentiss Waters is probably one of those necessary evils. I’m sure he probably wishes he could have spent the time and energy writing on some other project. Because he loves Christ and his denomination (the PCA), he felt compelled to write this book.

Because I am now serving in the PCA, and love Christ and His Church, I felt it necessary to read this book that I might better understand the Federal Vision since it is present in the PCA. Since I appreciated his earlier book Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, I thought this would be a helpful book. It was. I just wasn’t happy that I had to read it, and at times found it difficult to wrap my head around what the Federal Vision actually is.

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I call it “a hundred page headache.”

Since my library does not have enough books on the Trinity I was drawn to Eternal Covenant by its subtitle: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology. Perhaps it should have been entitled how one idea of Meredith Kline’s reshaped some people’s covenant theology. This was tough reading, for me.

I had been wanting to read up on the Federal Vision. I didn’t know I’d bought a book connected to the Federal Vision. The connections to Cannon Press and Peter Leithart were clear. He also offers James Jordan, whom one of my professors called a “hug-able theonomist”, a debt.

The book really centers on the so-called Covenant of Works and in what way the Covenant of Grace is eternal. There is an issue about the nature of that covenant. Reformed theologians have been all over the map on this issue, as Ralph Smith lays out for people at the beginning of the book. He uses this, in part, to illustrate that the Westminster Confession of Faith could use some revision in this matter.

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In Cool Runnings, Yul Brenner asks Jr. “Look in the mirror and tell me what you see?” The idea is that you live in accordance with your self-identity.

That is essentially where Kevin DeYoung goes, without the Cool Runnings reference, in the 7th chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness. He hits on our new identity in Christ, or in union with Christ. He gives us a concise version of Walter Marshall’s classic The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Marshall sees sanctification as the result of our union with Christ.

In a sense, this goes into what the gospel produces. Our union with Christ is why we are justified, sanctified and empowered by the Spirit. But I am getting ahead of myself, and DeYoung.

Our union with Christ is a much neglected doctrine. But recent releases by people like Robert Letham, J. Todd Billings and Maurice Roberts are trying to rectify this. Our union with Christ brings us all the blessings of God found in salvation (Eph. 1:3). If we are not “in Christ” we have none of these many blessings.

It is not a spatial thing. We are not physically joined to Jesus, as if we are chained together, super glued together or some such thing. DeYoung notes three things our union with Christ implies: solidarity, transformation and communion. Covenant Theology understands that all are born “in Adam”, in covenant solidarity under his headship. As a result, we are fallen, guilty and sinning. The new covenant gives us a new head. We are in covenant solidarity in Christ so that His obedience is ours (Romans 5).

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One of our members is a Baptist in transition. He is interested in understanding more about covenant theology and particularly how this informs and shapes how we treat children in the church. He asked about books to read in this subject. I couldn’t really think of any. We are great about defending infant baptism, but after that ….

Then I came across Our Covenant With Kids: Biblical Nurture in Home and Church by Tim Sisemore (it was previously released as Of Such is the Kingdom). I don’t like the title, finding it misleading. It isn’t our covenant, but God’s covenant with us that includes our children. But I suspected I ought to read it to gain a better theoretical understanding and therefore begin to move the congregation toward better nurture of our covenant kids in the church.

“The purpose of this book is to examine the entire teaching of the Bible that relates to children, to systematize it, and use this foundation to develop strategies that more adequately enable us to minister effectively to our children.”

This is, in many ways, a big picture book. He is thorough, and covers much ground. Numerous topics are covered, and covered well, but not exhaustively. For instance, in the chapter on the salvation of children, he talks about those dying in infancy. He covers the main views succinctly, and briefly argues for one over the others. I agree with him. But this discussion could have taken up many more pages. Sisemore displays great restraint and discipline as he approaches these topics. He gives information to help you sort through some things and make better decisions.

He begins with the nature of the task, parenting in a world hostile to our faith. The culture has affected the Church in general in a few significant ways: the loss of truth (we disregard doctrine), the loss of humanness due to evolutionary thought and the animal rights agenda (we’re okay with slaughtering children, but not seals, whales etc.), and the adultification of children (the world seduces them from an early age). As a result, he sets out to give us a theology of children, not merely instruction. So much of this is often assumed in parenting books. He wants to make it explicit so we can see if we are deviating from biblical norms in how we think of children. If we are deviating from biblical norms, our approach to instruction and nurture will be ineffective and possibly harmful.

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