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The times they are a-changing. That should be fairly obvious to anyone in America. Some resist the changes, while others adapt.

That includes Christians.

During the 2016 election I preached thru Esther to prepare people for this new world. I saw the two options as slow change and fast change. Both seemed more like the Persian king that I was comfortable thinking about.

I followed up Esther with 1 Peter to prepare my people for life as exiles. We are shifting to a post-Christian culture. As part of the previous majority, Christians are commonly disparaged by those seeking to re-balance the scales. I tried to draw this out and apply it to evangelism.

I wish the new book Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Elliot Clark was available at that time. Clark draws on his experiences as a missionary in a closed country to apply the message of 1 Peter to the newer American context. He provides us with a thoughtful exploration of evangelism as we move into the future where Christians are not welcome, just like Peter’s original audience.

After a foreword by D.A. Carson, Clark offers us an introduction (Embracing Exile) and 6 chapters to develop some of the primary themes in Peter’s letter: the hope of glory, godly fear, respect for others, evangelism as doxology and our true home. This is not a very long book (just over 150 pages). It will both comfort you and discomfort you. Filled with gospel hopes you also find some gospel imperatives as well.

Carson notes that opposition can be either cultural or judicial. Our missionaries would experience both at times, but we may have experienced some cultural opposition here in America. That opposition is increasing, and we are beginning to experience judicial opposition. This will mean that nominal Christians will fall by the wayside. But we have to consider how we will respond.

“Instead of whining and feeling sorry for ourselves because the culture is becoming unrecognizable, Christians should align their vision with that of the most mature first-century Christians.” D.A. Carson

It is time for many Christians to realize that the cultural war is over. It is post-D-Day and pre-VE day to borrow an analogy. We can live in fear and anger. Or we can realize there are profound gospel opportunities we didn’t have before. The New Testament was written to a church that was a cultural and religious minority. Therefore, there is much for us to discover there about our new cultural situation.

Peter wrote to “elect exiles”. Since become Christians, these people were exiles in the same cities they lived in before they converted. They engaged in evangelism despite lacking cultural power and influence. They relied on the Spirit and the Word more than programs and events. We may have to leave our programs and events but will still have the Word and Spirit.

Jesus experienced opposition from the Pharisees, scribes, Herodians, Sadducees, his own family, Roman officials and communities that were afraid of him. Sinners hate God and his gospel. When we represent God and his gospel, they may hate us too. Throughout his letter, Peter highlighted “the overlapping realities of their experience with the Savior’s.”

“In a world of seemingly unending shame, opposition, struggle, weakness, affliction, and persecution, the certainty of future glory is the unstoppable heartbeat of our enduring hope.”

Peter wanted them to know of their certain future, their hope. This future glory is Jesus’ shared glory. The afflictions we experience, and abuse heaped on us, cannot change or diminish that glory. We have a certain future, so don’t be overwhelmed by the uncertainty in the short-term.

I get it. I worry about how my kids will live. Will they have opportunities? Will they be persecuted? I’ve long thought I’ll probably end up in jail for my faith, and that may still happen. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and the promise of glory.

Clark speaks of shame, not fear, as perhaps the greatest impediment to evangelism. Shame excludes. Exiles don’t fit in, and no one will let them in. Future glory is the only antidote to the power of shame.

“God has put us in these places, positions, and relationships for a reason, and that reason, among others, is to proclaim the good news of Christ.”

While shame may be the greatest impediment, fear is a real problem too. He reminds us that the biblical antidote to the fear of man is the fear of God. Clark brings us to Isaiah 8, for instance, to help us to see that Peter’s message wasn’t new nor novel. It is, however, relevant.

Not only should we fear God, but Clark reminds us to fear for them. Judgment is real too. They will face judgment. These two fears should motivate us to make the gospel known to people.

As Christians we are to honor everyone. Peter calls us to gentleness and respect as we make Jesus known. This is not natural to us. We want to revile in return. We want to mock and ridicule. That doesn’t work so well for evangelism which is a way to love other people. To do it in an unloving fashion works against the goal. Perhaps we need to rethink how to interact online. We do need to realize we are not inviting them into short-term glory but rather to be outcasts with us. The glory will come later.

Evangelism is about worship too, as Clark reminds us from 1 Peter 2. Perhaps we don’t evangelize because our hearts are not filled with His praises.

In the midst of this, Clark redefines our understanding of “opportunities”. We tend to reduce opportunities to those times we think the person will be open. We are like guys who will only ask a girl out if they think it likely she’ll say ‘yes’. Instead, we are to proclaim the gospel in season and out. We are heralds of the kingdom, not salesmen looking for an easy mark.

Peter, Clark notes, repeatedly returns to Noah who was a preacher of righteousness. He preached despite a lack of success. He didn’t figure out which way the wind was blowing but by faith was obedient to God even though those around him couldn’t conceive of a flood. People today can’t really conceive of a judgment that involves them. Yet, the Great Commission stands as a gospel responsibility.

Holiness matters too! Personal holiness authenticates the message we bring. Jesus changes people. He imputes righteousness to us in justification, and imparts righteousness to us in sanctification. We aren’t saved because we are holy, but are saved to be made holy.

He then moves into hospitality. In Peter’s day there were no hotels. Inns were often places with questionable and immoral behavior. Church planting teams, itinerant preachers and traveling Christians needed a place to stay. Christians were to open their doors to them. Worship took place in people’s homes as well. Evangelism includes inviting people into your homes as you offer them an eternal home. In closed countries hospitality is an essential part of friendship and therefore evangelism. It will be so here too.

Clark touches on some important topics in this book. It is not simply theoretical, as seen in the stories from his life on the mission field. This is a great corrective to the average American Christian’s view of evangelism and culture.

Do you feel like a stranger in your own country?

Do you feel a desire to share the gospel with people who seem so different from you?

If you answered yes to those questions, this book is for you. You will find the book both comforting and challenging. May God move us into the world as heralds of the good news.

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Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.

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Over the course of 2 chapters in Evangelism for the Rest of Us, Mike Bechtle covers 3 “F”‘s. In one chapter he covers the “conflict” between form and function in evangelism. In the second he covers fear which often keeps us from evangelism.

Form vs. Function

He begins with a pastor taking “greet one another with a holy kiss” literally. Strangers were asked to kiss one another on the cheek. In some cultures this is perfectly normal. In Western culture, not so much. The function Paul has in mind is a warm greeting. He wants to further brotherly & sisterly love in the church through warm greetings. The form that took in his culture was a “holy kiss” the form it takes now is a hug, side hug, hand on the shoulder, hand shake etc. But not kissing.

This terminology would be helpful in the “head covering” debate. The function is to affirm authority in covenantal relationship (read: marriage) in worship. The form changes by culture. In Western culture, a woman wearing her wedding ring indicates she is married. She honor that in worship as she prays and (in Paul’s day at least, prophesied).

“Much of our misunderstanding of Scripture today stems from emphasizing form over function.”

In discussing evangelism we often get caught up in questions of form, as if one form of evangelism is right and the others are wrong. The real question is what is the best form of evangelism for a particular person in a particular set of circumstances talking to a particular person to fulfill the function God has established. As with the head coverings question, there is a particular function that God has called us to. The form that takes may differ. It is the function that matters. But we often focus on form and judge those who use a different form than us (we could also talk about style of music in this way).

I agree with Bechtle that many of our most heated intramural debates are about form and function, or between principle and preference as a friend puts it. But not all, or even most. Sometimes we really are wrangling about the meaning of Scripture. But often enough we are only wrangling about our preferred form of applying that biblical principle or function.

Because of who we are (personality, gifts, experiences, white middle class) and where we are (North America, Tucson, a suburb etc.) and the person to whom we are speaking (older Jewish man, upper middle class, from the Midwest) and where (kids’ birthday party) the form evangelism takes may differ. In this case, it was a simple statement since I didn’t really know the man but he talked of keeping Torah. So I sowed a seed with “If we can keep Torah, why did Jesus have to die?” I didn’t want to throw down with a stranger on another stranger’s back patio. So a simple comment may produce a nagging question in a man’s mind.

I was faithful in bearing witness in those circumstances. Could I have been more faithful? Possibly. Could I have used a different method? Sure. Was the method I used “wrong”? No.

One of the things Bechtle has not mentioned (yet) is cultural IQ (or emotional IQ either). Both have some role in all this. For instance, in a highly authoritarian culture, it would be unthinkable for a younger man to question an older man’s point of view. Even though we were both in America, his sub-cultural presuppositions could include this. We want to further the gospel, not set up additional obstacles. We want the offense to be the cross, not us.

Bechtle lays out a few different methods in summary. The traditional approach (approaching strangers with a particular method like the 4 Spiritual Laws to quickly share the whole salvation message). This also includes methods like Evangelism Explosion, street witnessing etc. He mentions an approach that became popular in the late 80’s or so, “lifestyle evangelism”. This was a more relational approach, and long-term approach. We could fight over which is better. Or we could realize both have strengths and weaknesses, and appropriate places and uses.

“The important thing is to look at the function of evangelism- to being people to the Savior. All methods people use are just forms to accomplish that function.”

This means that I might use different methods. I can’t use lifestyle evangelism if someone wants to talk with me on the plane. I probably shouldn’t use the traditional method with my boss. What matters is making Christ known to that person in an appropriate fashion in those circumstances. While you may be the “only Christian they ever meet” it is unlikely unless you are on a plane in Iraq. So, don’t feel the need to close the sale, so to speak. Love them.

The reality is that you don’t know how God will bring a person to Himself- the particular evangelistic method during which the coin finally drops and they get it. I know of one man who found a tract in the gutter while on a walk. He picked it up, read it and became a Christian.

Who you are is an important part of this. Bechtle tells of a bartender who became a Christian. As you might imagine some in the local church urged him to change jobs. They grew frustrated when he didn’t. More so when his plans to go to seminary didn’t include ending his career as a bartender. His reasoning? “Who do people share more openly with than their bartender?”. This was a good pool for him to fish for men and women. And the church nearly split since this involved the controversial aspect of alcohol. He is bringing the gospel to them where they are, not where he wants them to be. This man’s ministry isn’t for everyone. Sharing the gospel in bars is not wise for an alcoholic.

He then addresses a topic that I call being “inoculated against the gospel”. Some people are resistant to the gospel because of false understandings of Christianity furthered by some methods of evangelism. Many think they are Christians because they walked the aisle or raised their hand, not because they believe in Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended. You have to “unevangelize” them as a friend says. I did this once when a couple came into my office wanting to be married in our facility. They said they were Christians and I simply asked “What does it mean to be a Christian?”. After hearing their answers (moralism- at which they’d failed because she was pregnant), I was able to unpack the gospel for them and they believed. But many in the community were inoculated.

“Finding common ground means we have to go where the fish love and live among them in an honest way. … Most people would rather come to your house for a barbeque than spend Sunday morning in a church service.”

There is no one size fits all method. But a wise evangelist will use a variety of faithful methods that fit the particular situation and person. That may mean opening up your home for Christianity Explored, regularly having coffee with a co-worker or neighbor to talk about life or many other forms that fit you and them.

The Fear Factor

Most people avoid public speaking. They’d rather die.

Most Christians have plenty of fear regarding evangelism. Fear is to be expected. Some of us allow fear to become a prison.

Bechtle notes two types of fear. There is the fear that keeps you from doing things you shouldn’t do. Fear causes us to analyze whether or not we should do something. I felt that fear while I was roped up and ready to slip over the side of a cliff. I went over, and the ropes kept me safe as I slid down to the base of the cliff. But standing in the path of a moving train, the fear means I should get out of the way.

There is also the fear that comes from a challenge. Most athletes and actors feel fear before a game or performance. It isn’t debilitating. It is a creative tension. Many of us experience this at work when we take on new responsibilities, make a presentation etc. It gets to whether or not I am the best or appropriate person to do something. It is not about danger but about gifting. Some people work thru the fear and accomplish great things (or ordinary ones). This is the fear that I want my kids to face so their lives don’t become really small.

Evangelism is about the latter fear (unless you live in an oppressive system that prohibits evangelism). When we try to share our faith in ways that don’t “fit” us, we feel more fear. Don’t wait until you are “fear free” because there should always be that creative tension. “Eustress is the creative tension that helps us to perform.” It is stress, but not the kind that destroys us.

“Fear is like putting too much tension on a string or expecting it to sound like another instrument. Our job is to discover what kind of instrument God made us to be and allow him to play through us.”

It is discovering the best (not only) way for you to do evangelism. This is about intentionality; how you will plan to go about evangelism. Circumstances may arise when you share in a different way due to the circumstances.

Introverts tend to gravitate to relational evangelism. These are to be genuine relationships, meaning you are their friend even if they never come to faith. In the course of life together there are moments to bring the gospel in, hopefully moving them closer to faith. There may even be moments for great boldness or confrontational discussions. But it is within the context of friendship.

One day you may find yourself on a plane talking (likely against your will) to a stranger. You don’t say “not my gifting” but “Jesus, help me be faithful”. You may share the gospel in a way you are not comfortable. And that is okay. Finding the way that best fits you is not an excuse for never using a method that doesn’t.

Our desire is to feel strong and confident. But often that is not God’s goal.

“God doesn’t work around our weakness; he works through our weakness. Confidence comes through competence. Praying for boldness doesn’t mean doing things we’re not wire to do. It means asking God to work through us, helping us to do the things he has called us to do.”

God has called all His adopted children to evangelism. The form will differ. Don’t be dissing someone else’s form. Some speak. Others write. Some speak to strangers. Others to family and friends. Some in their neighborhoods. Others to Sunday School classes full of kids or in worship services. Someone wrote the SS curriculum through which thousands of people will hear the gospel. That’s a form of evangelism we don’t notice, particularly if our view of evangelism methods is very narrow.

He then deals with some of the more person specific fears we experience and that keep some from evangelism: rejection, failure, not having answers etc. He provides some responses to those fears. These get back to the reality of justification, adoption and sanctification (theology matters!). I’m accepted by God through Jesus Christ even if my message (and even me) is rejected by others. I’m accepted by God through Jesus Christ even if I don’t lead many/any to Christ (that I know of). I’m loved and accepted by God through Jesus Christ even if others see I’m a sinner or that I don’t have all the answers. The fact is God is working in me just as much (or more) than He is working in them. God is not in a rush regarding your sanctification. Nor is He in a rush for their conversion. Relax, resting in the love and patience of God.

Many Christians don’t evangelize because of the 3 “F”‘s. Questions of form vs. function, and fears plague them. The Enemy is satisfied. The Father wants to help us discover the best form for us, and to press through creative tension to be faithful witnesses.

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11001532_10206025186488500_1318611866669102824_oMy mother has Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed in the Fall of 2013, if I remember correctly. That’s because I went to visit my parents in the summer of 2014 and she was to the point that she didn’t know who I was.

I never got to say ‘good-bye’, at least so she’d know what was happening. It is hard to see a person who looks like your mother, but who doesn’t remember the last 60 or so years of her life. She doesn’t know who my father is, and calls him “The Boss”. The woman I knew is gone.

She lives in fear. She’s always been a fearful person, but there is less of a capacity to deal with her fear. When I visited with the kids she nearly panicked if they were even remotely near the road. But having them play outside was better than having her not letting them play inside (as happened on a previous visit).

It is tough to consider her life. In many ways she had a hard life as a kid. In some ways this made it difficult for her to be a mother, and to be her son. Nothing like Mommie Dearest, but difficult.

She was born in 1936, shortly before WWII. She was the eldest of 9 kids, and the only girl. That had to be difficult. I think that she, as a kid herself, raised some of her brothers. In some ways I’m not sure she had a childhood, or really knew how to be a mature parent. She did the best she could.

That was actually her understanding of life: God expected you to do the best you could. At least that is what she told the Mormon missionary who came to our door when I was a young Christian. I wish this were so since she was a nominal Catholic who did her best to raise us in the Church. I, her last son, was the only one to be confirmed. Having fulfilled her commitment, I was now free to choose whether or not I went to Mass. I didn’t.

As a teenager I felt like the Gerry Cooney of our family- the last Great White Hope. All my parents hopes seemed to be set on me. That is only my perspective. They never said that. But I was the one who went to college. I am the one with advanced degrees.

She also carried secrets. When I graduated from high school we all went out for dinner. She had a little too much wine, and the next thing I knew I heard about a miscarriage. The woman who had 8 brothers, and at the time had 2 sons lost a little girl. If that girl had been born, I wouldn’t have. I know of a few more, but who knows how many secrets she carried until she lost them all.

I struggled as I fell into the family’s sins. There was warning, but no apparent capacity to help me untangle myself from those sins. One of those sins was her sin- she was an angry person. At times my friends and I took a hellish delight in provoking her to anger.

My real struggle was with her apparent lack of boundaries, or at least her inability to respect mine. She thought she was being helpful. I thought she was being intrusive. I loved her, but I wanted her to realize I was an adult. I think she figured that out by the time I got married, when I was 36.

I think this desire to still parent kids drove her for years. She would baby sit for teachers at the school down the street.

Oh, there were positives. She was the saver in the family. She tried to pass that frugality on to us. She made me save my money from the paper route to pay for driver’s education. When I had it all, she only made me pay half of it. That was a bit frustrating, since I could have taken driver’s ed earlier.

Relationships with parents can be complex. As I tried to sort ours out, I didn’t always handle it well. As a young Christian I wanted something better for them than “doing their best.” I wanted her to know the freedom of forgiveness, to stop having to protect those secrets. I was probably disrespectful. At times I pushed. I didn’t understand how authority affects evangelism. They probably had not idea what to do with me. Thankfully they didn’t cast me out after my conversion like a few of my friends did.

Later, while in a counseling degree program I was angry. I withdrew. It was my relationship with my eventual wife that changed it. Family is important to her. I also knew I had plenty of baggage and I didn’t want her to suffer for the sins of others. I began to address my own anger. I began to realize that my parents didn’t have the capacity to understand or own up to certain things. I couldn’t wait for an apology before forgiving them.

I think CavWife was the only daughter-in-law she liked and respected. I think. It was hard since she really didn’t reach out to CavWife. I’m glad she got to hold her granddaughter. I’m glad she got to visit us here in AZ. My kids did not get her sense of humor. Oh, well.

I still deal with the debris, but I’m choosing not to hang on to things.

Another incremental step in her decline presses in. I’m not sure the best path for my father to take. I’m not sure how to support him from 2,000 miles away.

It still makes it difficult to process her absence because it was a complicated relationship. As a result my desire to mourn seems complicated too. And not just because she is here but also isn’t. I reach for thoughts and words but they seem so slippery.  I’m left with memories, conflicting and confusing (at times) memories.

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I left off my discussion of the law and Calvin on the verge of talking about the uses of the law in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Essentials Edition.

The first function of the law is to convince us of sin. The law comes to us as sinners, and reveals us as sinners. Fundamentally, it reveals the righteousness of God but then necessarily exposes our own unrighteousness. We tend to be blind to our sin. We easily recognize other people’s sin, particularly when we are hurt by other people. But sin has corrupted our hearts, and the law of God written there. As a result we struggle to accurately discern right from wrong. As sinners, we also struggle to see ourselves as we really are. So God gave us the law to address this great need in us.

“For man, who is otherwise blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to recognize and confess both his weakness and impurity.”

We are used to our evil desires. Sin also seeks to deceive us, posing as righteousness through our fear and pride. The law sheds light on the situation, helping us to see through the lies we’ve believed. It reveals that we really are guilty and should feel guilty.

God is not trying to make us miserable, for misery’s sake. “For we know that he never tires of doing good to us, and always heaps blessing upon blessing.” So this knowledge of self thru the law is really for our good, should we repent and believe. The misery is meant to promote our repentance when we see the mercy of God in the gospel. “His purpose, then, is that men, renouncing all belief in their own strength, should acknowledge that it is only his hand that sustains them…”.

Ultimately, of course, we are blessed only in (union with) Christ. “In Christ, however, his face shines upon us full of grace and sweetness, despite the fact that we are poor, unworthy sinners.” Exposed as weak & sinful, we are also driven to Jesus to gain life and contentment. This doesn’t happen without the law.

The second function is to restrain sin. Some people live in fear of punishment. You know, they slow down when they see a police car. The law, which includes sanctions, discourages sin in most people. This is not the same as obedience, since it is driven by slavish fear of punishment, not by faith and gratitude with an eye toward the glory of God. Shame and fear make society more peaceable, but they are not what God’s is aiming for, which is conformance to Christ who obeyed the Father out of love (for Him and us).

As a pastor and parent, there are times I am glad that some sin is restrained in the lives of my congregation and children. I’d rather the congregation, family and individuals involved not have to suffer the consequences of sin. I’m okay with someone avoiding sexual sin out of fear of pregnancy, STDs etc. For awhile. I would like to move them to faith, hope and love as motives for obedience. All things in due time.

The third, and controversial, use of the law is to encourage obedience in Christians. The power of obedience is the Holy Spirit, not the law. The law provides direction: this is what pleases God. The law provides promises to encourage. Sadly, when this is discussed, people opposed to the 3rd use of the law hear us saying that law has power to enable obedience. Reformed teachers don’t say this, but point to the Spirit. Here’s Calvin, “believers whose hearts are already ruled and quickened by God’s Spirit.” It is the Spirit who, in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise, writes the law on our hearts. Further, “led by the Holy Spirit they are moved by the wish to obey” which is also promised in the New Covenant. While we see law and grace as opposing principles with regard to justification, they are not with regard to sanctification. They work together! The law provides direction to grace. Grace provides desire and power to fulfill the law. Meditating on the law (think Psalm 119) is used by the Spirit to stir us toward obedience, “to persevere in obedience and to turn away from his faults.”

We are still burdened with the flesh, which resists obedience. So each of us needs the law to “be a constant goad to him, to stop him growing sleepy or dull.”

Calvin then begins to defend his position. Some people, and theological systems, “rashly reject Moses and would have us ignore the law.” He asserts that we are not bound by random rules and principles, if we want to be holy, but the permanent and unchanging moral law which is a reflection of God’s righteous character. Paul asserts as much in 2 Timothy 3. The OT, which was the Scriptures he was referring to, is useful  to admonish, rebuke, correct and train the righteous man for good works.

“In urging upon us the perfection to which it calls us, it shows us the goal at which we should aim our lives. Provided we persevere in that aim, that is enough. Our whole life is like a race; when we reach its end the Lord will bless us by letting us reach the goal we presently pursue, even though we are still a long way off.”

Calvin argues that the curse of the law, not the law itself, was abrogated by Christ. The Christian is no longer, or should no longer, be fearful of God because Christ has borne the curse for us. We have been adopted as sons, and have the Spirit of sonship not the spirit of slaves. Justified, we are at peace with God and our subsequent sins do not destroy that peace purchased by Christ if we are truly united to Christ. Jesus changes our relationship to the law.

Part of the law, or a type of law, has been abrogated. The ceremonial law has not only fulfilled, but our attempts to keep it are a winding back of redemption. Our redemption’s goal is to make us like Jesus in character, which is reflected in the law. The ceremonial law addresses guilt and pollution, the very things Jesus removed through His propitiation on the cross. To still obey that part of the law (offering sacrifices) is to say that the work of Jesus did not deal with our guilt and pollution. Those Mosaic sacrifices did not really remove their guilt and pollution, but were provisional in nature until the Son came to actually remove our guilt and pollution, and to prepare God’s people for that time.

“Such observances obscured his glory once the gospel had been revealed.”

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I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.

It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.

The first paragraph is familiar:

“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.

The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.

This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.

Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them.  This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.

As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.

Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)

But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”

We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).

Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.

“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”

The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”

“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”

 

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In the last few years there has been an explosion of books on the topic of grace. Some of been excellent. Some have been controversial. Some of those that have been controversial had some significant flaws. Not a fatal flaw, mind you. They were still within the bounds of Christianity but not necessarily within the bounds of the community to which the author belonged (how’s this for vague?).

So, it was with a measure of anticipation and trepidation that I read Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid. I had a sense of anticipation because I have found her husband Iain’s books very helpful. Additionally I saw that she was very dependent on John Newton from whom I’ve also benefited greatly. But I also had sanctification controversy PTSD.

Here is my bottom line: I loved the forest, but some of the particular trees may have issues.

Barbara has some obvious influences, and some that aren’t as obvious. In addition to John Newton, she has a certificate from CCEF, and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. When she sticks close to those the book is quite excellent and helpful. When she goes beyond them I found it less helpful and has some of the same issues that troubled me about Tullian Tchividjian’s books on grace. I try to remember what Dr. Pratt taught us: you can’t say everything any time you say anything. Yet a qualification or two saves a world of misunderstanding.

The Good

Throughout the book Barbara Duguid is quite honest about her own struggles, which essentially drive the book. This is nothing new. Many theologians have a doctrinal emphasis that reflects their own personal struggles. Think Luther and his emphasis on justification by faith alone. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly when we consider the providence of God in the matter. Yet we should recognize that we, as sinners saved by grace, can still run off into extremes. Her honesty, to get back to my point, is helpful. She is not writing theoretically, but has walked with God through these difficult places.

“God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.”

This book is easy to read. It is not a technical book but intends to make theology practical. She does a good job of this. The first chapter, Welcome to Your Heart, easily introduces you to her heart and by extension yours through a story. She shows how pride lurks in our hearts, distorting our experience by trying to make us the center of … everything.

The next three chapters, leaning heavily on Newton, are about the three stages of Christian life: babes in Christ, maturing and grown-ups. Sadly, not many people talk about this. It is helpful to recognize the differences so a person has more accurate expectations. Babes often have few trials and lots of joy. God has merciful on them. There is often, in my experience, significant change almost immediately if one converts as an adult. But then life gets hard. God begins to work more deeply, and most often through hardship and failure. The focus is on developing deeper dependence on God, and the destruction of our pride.

“A mature believer studies all the aspects of a person’s struggle with sin and makes allowances. He never stops calling sin the ugly and evil thing that it is, but he understands how deeply rooted it is in human nature and how helpless every Christian is to stand against it.”

Her book offers hope to all of us who struggle with sin, which is every Christian. She reminds us of the providence of God, the preservation of the saints, and the doctrine of assurance (from the Westminster Confession of Faith) which instruct us that sometimes God does in fact bring us through periods of disobedience. The problem is most Christians don’t talk about with struggles (contrary to James 5) so when we struggle with sin we think we are the only one, or more messed up than everyone else in church.  We have to remember that God is up to something bigger than “sin management.”

Our struggles with sin should translate into greater patience with the sins of other Christians. When we consider how patient God is with us, and how sufficient His mercy is to us, we are able to be patient and extend mercy to our brothers and sisters even (particularly!) when they sin against us.

“The more I see myself as the biggest sinner and the worst transgressor, the more I will be able to step up to love others even when they sin against me time and time again.”

I can see Ed Welch’s (a professor at CCEF)  as well as Newton’s influence in the last chapter. Part of how we strive for holiness is in community and making use of the means of grace (Word and sacrament). We need each other profoundly. Her the individualism of Americans is anti-thetical to the gospel. We need help to see our sins. We need help through the prayers of others not only for our illnesses but our sins. We need to remember that the Lord’s Table is for us as saved sinners who still need grace along the pilgrim road.

Her audience is those who are depressed and overwhelmed by their on-going struggle with sin. These people need to know of God’s extravagant grace toward sinners saved by grace. There is plenty of truth to encourage them so they can strengthen their weak knees and keep moving by the grace of God.

“Although God did not create your struggle or tempt you to it, he has called you to walk with it. He has assigned it to you, and he loves you as he calls you to walk through it. He is not disgusted by you.”

The Questions the Reformed Community Needs to Address

There are some questions that are raised by this book, reflecting problems with other books on grace. The sanctification debates seemed largely focused on the third use of the law. These go deeper and are, I think, more important.

1. Is sanctification monergistic or synergistic? This book seems to give conflicting answers at times. Newton often refers to striving for holiness, and she echos that at times. But she is also critical of unnamed pastors who seem to focus on our responsibility. Philippians 2:13 has been one of the key verses for me to understand the relationship between gospel indicatives (facts) and gospel imperatives (commands). God works in me so I will and work according to His purpose. We can’t focus on only one part of that. Edwards noted that it is “all of God and all of me”. I can only work because He works in me (grace!!). But I actually work. He’s not working for me, believing for me, repenting for me. It is typically a hyper-Calvinist view to minimize the exercise of our wills. At times she comes really close to this.

2. What is the nature, or goal, of sanctification? She frequently criticizes the view that it is “sinning less and less.” This seems contrary to the way it is expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to which she holds as a member of the ARP.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

She doesn’t really qualify or explain what she means. She is correct if she is referring to simply external obedience. The truth is that our “obedience” is often driven by fear and pride instead of faith and love. When we obey out of fear (the fear of getting caught, what people will think etc.) or pride (having a reputation to uphold, a sense of entitlement) we are not really obeying. If this is what she means, I wholeheartedly agree. God is working to address the fear and pride behind so much “obedience.” God also won’t give us “victory” (I hate that term) if it will lead us to spiritual pride. Fear and pride are sins too, but sins that drive other sins as well as counterfeit obedience.

3. What is the Degree of Regeneration?

Our depravity is total, but not absolute. Every aspect of us is affected but we aren’t as bad as we could be. She notes that though saved, we are depraved, weak little sinners. Where is regeneration? To what degree have we changed? Thomas Boston, in the Human Nature in its Fourfold Estate, argues that our regeneration is total in the same way that depravity is. Every aspect of us is affected by regeneration, but not absolutely. While regenerate we still have indwelling sin. We want to be neither triumphalists nor fatalists. She rightly criticizes the former but sounds an awful lot like the later.

4. Does God get angry with us? Can He be pleased by our actions?

She hammers our position in Christ. Indeed there is cause for great rejoicing with regard to our position in Christ as perfectly righteous. This is our hope: union with Christ. But in sanctification does God only see us positionally or does He also see us personally?

She notes the Israelites in the wilderness as the pattern for us in many respects, particularly their failure (she overlooks how many times it does say they did everything the Lord commanded Moses in particular matters). If they were converted (which I think many/most of them were) they were then united to Christ (apart from whom there is no salvation). During the wilderness journey we often see God angry with Israel (with no differentiation between the elect and non-elect). In Hebrews 12 we see that God disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness. He necessarily sees us as less than personally righteous and moves us toward greater personal righteousness. We have Christ’s imputed righteousness in justification, and He imparts Christ’s righteousness to us in sanctification. These distinctions seem to be missing here (and in other some books about grace). If we can’t please God personally, then why does Paul pray for this in Colossians 1.

Love is not contrary to anger, as she seems to argue. Anger is an important part of love to protect the beloved from danger, including the destructiveness of sin. I wonder how much her own anger issues (one of the sins she says she struggles with) influence her views on this. I don’t want God to be angry with me, but I need his fatherly anger at times, as Calvin notes.

“The Spirit of love was given to Christ alone, for the express purpose of conferring this Spirit upon his members; and there can be no doubt that the following words of Paul apply to the elect only: “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” (Rom. 5:5); namely, the love which begets that confidence in prayer to which I have above adverted. On the other hand, we see that God is mysteriously offended [wondrously angry] with his children, though he ceases not to love them. He certainly hates them not, but he alarms them with a sense of his anger, that he may humble the pride of the flesh, arouse them from lethargy, and urge them to repentance. Hence they, at the same instant, feel that he is angry with them for their sins, and also propitious to their persons.John Calvin (Institutes 3:2:12)

The Big Picture Problem?

When she moves away from Newton, CCEF and the Westminster Standards, I pick up an organizational principle for salvation that is more Lutheran than Reformed. Lutheran theology (after Luther’s death) made justification by faith alone the organizing principle so union with Christ and sanctification (and all the other benefits) flow out of justification. This, in my opinion, means that justification flattens the other doctrines, our understanding of Scripture and the dynamic rather than static relationship we have with God. This shows up in focusing on the positional almost exclusively.

The Reformed view sees union with Christ as the organizing principle (to borrow Lane Tipton’s terminology, see Calvin’s Institutes, book 3 and the WLC #65-69). Out of our union with Christ we receive all the (distinct) blessings of Christ. We receive the double grace of justification and sanctification at the same time, though they are distinct. We experience definitive or definite sanctification at that point. It focuses on us as positionally sanctified (see Hoekema’s Saved by Grace). Progressive sanctification necessarily focuses on our personal sanctification. He sees us as we are in ourselves (but doesn’t condemn us because of our position in Christ). Reformed Theology has historically held these two in a biblical tension that appears to be lacking here.

Yesterday I looked at some other reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing the boat, or seeing something that isn’t there. Both Mark Jones and Dane Ortland saw the same things or similar things.

Like Dane Ortland I recognize the many good things about this book which includes some things that are rarely taught which need to be heard. But I want to filter out the ways in which she departs from (my understanding of?) Reformed Theology. Enjoy the forest, even if some trees have thorns. Or to use a different metaphor: it is a good meal, but there is some bone and gristle to toss out.

Time for a little Double Cure.

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