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Posts Tagged ‘Justice’


The first section of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion developed Haidt’s Social Intuition Theory. He summarizes this as “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” In his metaphor the rider serves the elephant, explaining why the elephant (intuitions) is going in the direction it is going.

The second section of the book develops the thesis that “there’s more to morality than harm and fairness”. His metaphor is that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.” He’s going to develop the foundations of morality. In the process, he’s going to look at the differences in the moral foundation between conservatives and liberals, as well as how they lean differently in common ground.

WEIRD People

He begins with the concept of WEIRD. Many of his subjects for his dissertation research came from his time at McDonald’s. He was surprised “these working-class subjects would sometimes find my request for justifications so perplexing.” He began to note class and educational differences. His students at Penn were devoted to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” They were the only group that didn’t express some form of disgust for one of his test questions. Haidt borrows the WEIRD acronym from Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan. It stands for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. These people are statistical outliers but often form the sample for many studies in the West. “Even in the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class (like my Penn sample) is the most unusual of all.”

As he lays out the differences, most people think holistically but the WEIRD are more analytical. They gravitate toward Kant and Mill. They see the world differently and have different moral concerns. They are more individualistic while other are more sociocentric in their morality, meaning groups and institutions are placed ahead of the concerns of the individual.

He leans on Shweder in recognizing that you can’t ignore culture when you study how people think. Conversely you can’t study culture and ignore psychology. Shweder discovered “three major clusters of moral themes”: autonomy, community, and divinity.

Autonomy: “People should be free to satisfy these wants, needs, and preferences as they see fit, and so societies develop moral concepts such as rights, liberty, and justice, which allow people to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other’s projects.” There is dependence on utilitarians Mill and Peter Singer.

Community: “based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities such as families, teams, armies, companies, tribes, and nations… they are real, they matter, and they must be protected. … Many societies therefore develop moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation and patriotism.”

Divinity: “people are first and foremost, temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. … The body is a temple, not a playground.” Therefore people shouldn’t do things that degrade themselves or dishonor their Creator.

Becoming a Pluralist

Haidt was admittedly WEIRD, until he moved to India for a study. He wasn’t on vacation but immersed himself in the culture, “a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not mine.” He learned that as people were kind to him, his elephant leaned toward them, and his rider began to look for reasons to defend them. I liken this, in part, to John Perkin’s idea that “love is the final fight.” If we are kind to one another we’ll begin to care for one another and seek reasons to defend one another (and their view points).

He began to understand the concept of moral disgust which “is felt whenever we see or hear about people whose behavior shows them to be low on this vertical dimension.” He says that while a man who robs a bank commits a crime, and we judge him, those who traffic in children disgust us and we consider them monsters rather than simply criminals. Haidt found himself adopting some Indian practices associated with disgust, including removing shoes before entering a house (since the streets are filthy).

He began to understand the moral outrage of conservatives when a crucifix is placed in a jar of urine and called art. He encourages people to consider what would happen if images of Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela were treated this way. This, I think, is part of what is driving the move to remove confederate statues. They are viewed as polluting our society. He notes that “the ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights.” Yet it also provides critique for the ugly parts of secular culture.

Leaving the Matrix

The creators of The Matrix built on William Gibson’s view of cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer. Neo took the red pill to leave the matrix and see reality for what it really was. Shweder’s ideas were Haidt’s red pill. He now understood “many moral matrices coexist within each nation.” Each one presents a “complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview”. Growing up Jewish his community saw unions and labor providing protection from the exploitation they faced. Since FDR was a President who supported labor and was in office when Hitler was defeated, Jews have been largely Democrat ever since. There is an emotional tie that doesn’t seem rational to others.

His own political views seemed so ethical, and the other party’s so obviously evil, that he and his friends looked for the psychological pathology to explain why anyone would be a Republican. They didn’t consider that moral choices were more complex than reducing harm and increasing fairness. When he returned to the States, Republicans didn’t seem quite so crazy. He had escaped from his “partisan mind-set(reject first, ask rhetorical questions later).” He felt freed from partisan anger.

“If you grow up in a WEIRD society, you become so well educated in the ethic of autonomy that you can detect oppression and inequality even where the apparent victims see nothing wrong.”

Moral Taste Buds

Who’d go to a restaurant that only focused on one taste receptor, he asks. Imagine Salt, with a menu filled with food focused exclusively on your salt receptor. From this he moves to morality. As our tongue has different receptors (sweet, salty, sour etc) so our righteous mind has variety of moral receptors or foundations. A balanced moral view encompasses all or most of them, but individuals and communities will prefer different blends.

“In this analogy, morality is like cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes.”

He understands morality as a social or cultural construct (of your tribe). While it is not internally generated, it is internalized. We all have the same receptors but don’t all like the same foods, or ethical views. Here Haidt returns to his love for Hume. Moral judgement is a kind of perception, an intuition, not the result of reasoning (most of the time at least). In this, Haidt looks at Kant and Bentham, two of the great systemizers in ethical realms. Those who are autistic are high systemizers with low empathy (ability to put yoursefl in another’s shoes). Much of what we know about Jeremy Bentham, the other famous Utilitarian, indicates he’d likely be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome today. Even Mill apparently despised Bentham. Kant, the leading Deontologist, also seems to be close to the “autism zone”. Both utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative lack empathy and isolate one receptor above all others, excluding the others.

Haidt sought “links between virtues and well-established evolutionary theories.” He borrowed “modularity” from Sperber and Hirschfield. They are like switches in our brains, fight or flight for instance. I wasn’t enamored with his attempts to tie all this into evolution, so I’ll his Moral Foundations Theory (see chart above). He will add a sixth later but we can see the main switches in our minds that influence our ethical and moral views.

In the next chapter he sets out to apply Moral Foundations Theory to politics, showing that these foundations are used differently to support different moral matricies. He begins with homo economicus, or economic man. This means we make our choices based on self-interest. But his studies disproved self-interest. There were somethings people wouldn’t do no matter how much money you offered them.

Innate knowledge is not quite hard-wired. It is built in, but malleable. Our experiences shape how we express innate knowledge.

Compassion is the emotion linked to the care/harm foundation. Cuteness is tied to our care/harm foundation. You don’t want to hurt something cute, but an ugly bug … step on it. Media uses the care/harm foundation to shift people’s minds on moral issues. They want to trigger it, and so do many retailers in their ads. This is the point: “to get your vote, your money, or your times, they must activate at least one of your moral foundations.” He views bumper stickers are tribal badges: declaring who you are and your moral matrix. He argues that the moral matrix of liberals (remember, he is one!) rests more heavily on this modularity than others.

This doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t have compassion, they just express it differently (and for different causes). In keeping with loyalty, their compassion tends to stay home first. Not exclusively, but primarily. This is why they want to limit foreign aid so we can address issues here at home first. They also express it as individuals rather than seeking “compulsory compassion” through the government (aka taxes). So, liberals generally seek compassion through government while conservatives express compassion personally (studies indicate that conservatives are more generous to causes).

Fairness/cheating is about justice. “On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation”. The key there is equality. On the right, fairness is expressed proportionally: “people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.” So liberals tend to press for “equal outcomes” such as concern about income inequality and the wealth tax and limitations. Conservatives tend to press for “equal opportunity” which means each person can succeed or fail. Both want justice but see it differently.

In looking for a new-to-me car, I went to test a car with a great price. I liked the car but apparently that was the price “if”: if you had a trade in, and used them for financing. There was no such fine print in the Car Gurus information. My fairness switch was triggered. It was still a very good deal, but not the deal I came in expecting. I’m still on the horns of this, for me, ethical dilemma.

Loyalty/Betrayal addresses our communal life. Leaders arise in each group by consensus, even if unspoken. In the sitcom Community, Jeff Winger is the unspoken leader who naturally arose in the study group. People deferred to and followed him. He decided who was in or out. Until his role was challenged, then it all became more explicit as the rival was “put in their place” for his betrayal of the authority, and the tribe. Loyalty matters to people. Women focus on loyalty to persons. Men tend to focus on groups (teams or coalitions). We like team players, and punish the selfish. Those perceived as disloyal are ostracized. Swing votes, more moderate in their views, as criticized. They are the Blue Dog Democrats (aka Reagan Democrats), RINOs (Republican in name only) and the PCA’s “squishy middle”. Dante consigns the traitors to the innermost circle of hell. (One thing that Haidt does that annoys me, beginning in this section is using the term ‘universalism’ instead of ‘globalism’. I hear the former used in religious circles about salvation, and the latter in political circles. Many Liberals/Moderates I knew lamented the end of the “globalist dream” after the 2016 election.)

Authority/Subversion addresses the respect, or lack thereof, shown to parents, teachers and others in authority. This reflects the reality of the hierarchical impulse. Someone needs to be in charge. In some languages this is encoded through the use of the polite form. It is also reflected in the use or abandonment of titles. He spends time talking about the alpha male, and all I can think about is Negan. But we should remember that they “take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice.”

Haidt used to hold to the common liberal belief that “hierarchy = power = exploitation = evil.” He admits he was wrong and delves into “Authority Ranking”, asymmetric positions in hierarchy. There are people above you and below you. This modularity shapes how we respond to both. The political right builds on loyalty more often than the political left does. It is the party of law and order.

Sanctity/Degradation builds on divinity cluster. Those who are materialists tend to dismiss degradation in favor of autonomy. It’s just a body, after all. Others have a greater sense of disgust that is “irrational”. I was updating my license the other day and the organ donor question came up. I hate that question. I want to be philanthropic, but something about organ donation creeps me out (Frankenstein movies???). Perhaps it is that my body remains united to Christ even in death. I find I can’t overcome that hump. Many people have a strong sense of sanctity/degradation which drives moral choices. Conservatives are more likely to speak of the sanctity of life or marriage. This modularity means more to them. But it also shows up among environmentalists worried a bout degrading the environment.

“Kass argued that our feelings of disgust can sometimes provide us with a valuable warning that we are going too far, even when we are morally dumbfounded and can’t justify those feelings by pointing to victims…”

The Conservative Advantage

I’ve been going long so I’ll try to keep this last section short. As a liberal, Haidt believes that conservatives have an advantage. That advantage is that they utilize a greater number of moral modularities in their messages. Liberal politicians tend to focus on two: Care/Harm and Fairness/Injustice. Haidt notes how he’d criticize Kerry’s speeches in the 2004 election. Kerry’s slogans (“American Can Do Better” and “Help is on the way”) remind me of Biden’s “A Better America”. They really don’t connect with moral foundations. Haidt spoke to Charlottesville Democrats about how Republicans understand moral psychology much better than Democrats. Democrats, he argues, appeal to the rider while Republicans appeal to the elephant.

“Republicans don’t just aim to cause fear, as some Democrats charge.” Plenty of Democrats aim to cause fear too.

Republicans trigger a wider range of moral intuitions. Haidt devised a study to prove his theory. The study showed that while Care and Fairness were moderately high across the political spectrum, they were highest among liberals. The other three increased the farther right you went. Liberals largely reject loyalty, authority and sanctity foundations. This was not simply a U.S. phenomenon. Haidt notes that so much of the research seems to want to find out what is “wrong” with conservatives (being done by liberals). Haidt doesn’t seem to think this is the right approach (normalizing my view and disparaging theirs aka partisanship and demonization).

He notes that at first Obama showed great dexterity in triggering moral intuitions. But then he began to follow the familiar path of addressing Care and Fairness primarily (appealing to the base?). He still got elected twice, however. But you understand the criticism from the right for his globalism as disloyalty to our nation.

Liberals tend to gravitate toward John Stuart Mills’ position (which assumes people are basically good, which isn’t a good assumption to make). Conservatives tend to gravitate toward Emile Durkheimian society that values self-control, duty and loyalty to one’s own group. This explains Obama’s “God and guns” complaint about the heartland. Democrats focus on the pluribus (many), and Republicans the unum (one).

What I Missed

Haidt realized that he missed something. He got some strong responses to his Moral Foundations Theory which didn’t fully fit into it. There was another moral foundation: liberty/oppression. Alphas need to know their limits or oppressed subjects eventually rise up. Liberty operates in a tension with authority. Authority must exist, but not oppress. The Federalists saw authority as protecting liberty. I can see this, but see liberty and safety being in tension. You sacrifice one to get the other (this is the theme of the second and third Captain America movies).

“Liberals sometimes go beyond equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalist system. This may be why the left usually favors higher taxes on the rich, high levels of services provided to the poor, and sometimes a guaranteed minimum income for everyone.”

He argues that in America, conservatives focus on liberty rather than equality. They want a limited government that treats people equally instead of one that tries to control outcomes. So, his Moral Foundations Theory now has (at least) 6 foundations for the world’s numerous moral matrices. Conservatives have the advantage because they address 6 foundations while liberals focus on 3.

And so we’re done with the second section of the book.

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Sometimes the people you read champion a book that was influential on them. You make note of the book. You buy it and eventually you read it.

Because of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and John Piper I began to read the Puritans. Due to Tim Keller I began to read John Newton. Newton has been very helpful for me.

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceBecause of Keller, and some others, I picked up Harvie Conn’s Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. It was foundational for them in advocating for what I think is a healthy balance of seeing justice as an implication of the gospel. Transformed people will want to see their world transformed. As we grow in personal righteousness (sanctification) we will act justly and seek to love our neighbors. I seemed like I needed to read this little book when I found it in the internet “discount bin”.

Were my expectations too high? Would it exceed my expectations?

One important thing about when I read a book is how much red ink I use. That could mean either a great book with lots of “money quotes” or big ideas I want to keep track of. Lots of ink could also mean it is a book I take great exception to, as the writing in the margins argues against the authors point.

I didn’t use much ink in this book before I gave up in the midst of his chapter on prayer. It was meh to me. I was underwhelmed and found it too bound to its time.

In his preface he notes that it is not a “how-to” book. “Rather, this is an effort to look at the relation between evangelism and social questions as two sides of the same coin.” He uses the terms holistic evangelism and Lordship evangelism to describe this balance and interdependence. It was written as the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism was doing its work.

Time can prove that many of our fears and expectations are unfounded. History takes unexpected turns. He brought up the United Presbyterian Church’s steep decline in membership. If such trends continued, he anticipated one priest (?) for each communing member by 2000. Well, they were part of the formation of the PC (USA), which while continuing to bleed churches and members still has a fair amount of money and more members than pastors.

He does address the need for contextualization, “how to communicate the relevance of the gospel.” He faults, to a degree, the seminaries’ focus that has seemingly resulted in homogeneous churches instead. We forgot to be all things to all men while presenting the one message in a way those people can get. The doctrine of accommodation should teach us that we must shape our message to the people who are listening.

In his day (and more so ours) there is a skepticism to our message and the stories of those who bear it. Conn notes that Corrie Ten Boom is seen as a “woman with high ideals who showed remarkable resiliency under pressure” rather than recognizing the triumph of grace in her life. You see the times in the skeptical views of reports of the conversions of Charles Colson, Larry Flynt and Eldridge Cleaver. Clearly the 2nd proved false. I chose not to bring up his false conversion in a sermon, thinking it was a bit too edgy. Conn mentions plenty of such things in this book.

IHardcore Postern the context of accommodation and the message he refers to the movie Hard Core about the daughter of a pastor whose daughter leaves home and enters the porn industry. Oddly, I’d recently heard an interview with the writer & director, Paul Schrader, who also worked on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, 1st Reformed, American Gigolo, and Mosquito Coast. He grew up on the Reformed Faith and sees himself as a preacher, but not of faith though the “failures” of faith often show up in his movies. We speak into this skepticism, failure and scandal, whether we realize it or not. If we do, we can speak to it as well.

In the second chapter he moves to what we are calling people to: incorporation, humanization, celebration and justice. Our words should also be backed up with actions. We speak of love, and should show love.

“Evangelism must become gospel show-and-tell, showing mercy and preaching grace.”

This can be difficult for smaller churches, like the one I pastor. I agree there is an evangelistic aspect to diaconal ministry. But our first priority is to our members. With limited resources to help the household of God, the evangelistic bent to diaconal ministry gets lost.

10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5

He then moves into justice; setting things right as part of evangelism. “The doing of justice becomes the distinguishing mark of the people of God before the world.” Instead, we seem to either be afraid of doing justice lest we become social justice warriors, or go so far as to justify the injustice. Yes, there is a real threat to devolve in to a social gospel, which is not gospel at all.

As I think about things, I struggle with the whole concept of the culture war. Doing justice isn’t about embracing or resisting worldly agendas. We shouldn’t be either SJWs or oppressors/defenders. Our marching orders are from the Scriptures, not culture. We should be walking a tightrope instead of moving toward the extremes which tends to demonize people who commit one sin while excusing others. We need to hear the call to “love mercy and act justly” instead of thinking they are opposed to one another.

One way he puts this is in talking about publicans. Among the people we meet are those who sin and those who are sinned against. Actually, every person we meet is both a sinner and someone who has been sinned against. We should address both sides of that coin.

“A gospel that does not address people as sinned-against pose a lot of problems for the publican, the sinned-against. Either he rejects the gospel or sees it as an opiate.”

The prostitute is not simply a sinner, though we want to reduce her to that. She likely has been sinned against as a child. She is likely being oppressed in the present, a slave to a pimp, as well. (The same is true for male prostitutes though we don’t speak of them often).

We can’t turn a blind eye to past and present oppression of the black community in America. The gospel is often seen as a way to placate them and keep them in submission instead of offering freedom and hope. Doing justice opens the door for the message.

He then discusses a two-dimensional spirituality. We are to obey both the cultural and evangelistic mandates. We are not to pick and choose between them. Love for neighbor means not only proclaiming the gospel but also doing no wrong to our neighbor by our actions (or inaction). Into this he returns to the Lausanne Covenant. It speaks of “sacrificial service evangelism”.

He doesn’t want us to pick one, but to see them as “two stages in God’s covenant relationship with man.” Having failed in the cultural mandate, we now have the added evangelistic mandate. Continuing to fail in terms of the cultural mandate means that those fallen social, economic and political structures hinder evangelism.

At times, this chapter is less than clear. He uses terms without always defining them. Snooze at any point and you get lost. But here are a few parts I underlined:

“This kind of spirituality does not equip us for evangelism by taking us out of the world. It puts a new world into us, the world of the spiritual, that new lifestyle caused by the Holy Spirit, centered in the Holy Spirit, and possessed by the Holy Spirit.”

“Living in the Spirit is not an evangelistic escape from history, but a participation in the new reality of history brought by the redemptive work of Christ and the applying work of the Holy Spirit.”

I’d been trying to read this book alone with my sermon series on Mark. It seemed to fit the idea of following Jesus in terms of what it looks like to submit to the authority of Jesus. We act justly and preach grace. But this short book always seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and was far more theoretical than practical.

And so I started to read the chapter on prayer and gave up. His writing style was less then helpful to me. Perhaps I’m too dull to get it, but I lost my patience for the book. It was time to move on for me. There are other books crying for my attention, and it is time to heed those calls.

I was disappointed. Perhaps it is this particular juncture in my life and ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing. I don’t want to write off the book as utterly unhelpful, but it was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Conn’s approach seems meandering at times, lacking focus. At least I coudn’t always tell where he was going, and the process of getting there was roundabout-ish.

There is it. Hopefully you get a few good thoughts to move you forward in thinking about justice and grace in the work of the church. Biblically, they are not opposed though we often move toward extremes of either the social gospel or spirituality of the church. This is a conversation worth having as we see the rise of the social justice warriors and their mirror reflection in conservative culture warriors. Jesus, I think, would distance Himself from both.

 

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With the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt, there have been a number of books about this important 17th century document of the Dutch Reformed Church (though there were a few members from other nations present).

Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God Kevin DeYoung cover imageAt the recent RTS alumni and friends lunch at General Assembly, I was given a free copy of Kevin DeYoung’s book Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400 Year-old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God. This was fortuitous since I had considered buying a copy but didn’t get around to it. I actually cut back on my book buying for the first part of this year. I didn’t just get free books at General Assembly, but did actually buy some.

Over the last two afternoons in upstate NY, I read the book. This means that it is not a very big book, and it was very interesting. At least to me.

Since I am a Presbyterian as opposed to Continental Reformed, I’m much more familiar with the Westminster Standards than the Canons of Dordt. I’ve referred to it at points but haven’t spent much time studying it. I thought this was a great opportunity to begin wading into this important document.

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Day 1 view

DeYoung’s book is an excellent place to start. He is succinct in his approach so it is quite accessible to lay people but interesting to pastors. DeYoung is generally not overly-wordy. I would rather be left wanting a bit more than finding a book tedious (I have to remember this as I edit my own manuscript). As I noted above, it does not require a huge time investment. Over the course of those afternoons I enjoyed two cigars, so it will take about 3 hours.

The book has 4 chapters and 4 appendices. The text of the articles of the Canons of Dordt are in the text of the 4 chapters. He lays out a few articles and then comments on them, majoring on the majors. The appendices include the Rejection of the Errors By Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed, which summarizes the errors they believe the Remonstrance (Arminians) had fallen into; the Rejection of False Accusations; the Opinions of the Remonstrance given in response to the initial presentation of the Articles; and the Scripture Proofs of the Canons of Dordt (DeYoung uses the alternate spelling of Dort throughout the book, but I’m used to Dordt and will use it with apologies to Kevin). He makes these original sources readily available for ease of use and to provide a proper context. He states a few times that you can’t always understand what they are arguing against apart from the Rejections and the Opinions. We can sometimes misinterpret them. One example is the use of “common grace” which in this context refers to the “light of nature”.

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Day 2

His introduction is called In Praise of Precision. He refers to the common notion that all opinions are equal. Due to changes in culture including the internet, we can think we know more than those who have studied a subject for years or decades. We often prefer passion over precision. Theological debate should not simply generate heat, but also light (all thanks to Jonathan Edwards). The shedding of theological light requires precision. I have been frustrated in recent debates in our denomination over the lack of precision. I should have asked more people for clarification when I thought precision was lacking.

Often we refer to the acronym TULIP as shorthand for Reformed Theology. While we embrace TULIP, Reformed Theology is more expansive than these views on salvation. The Canons of Dordt are therefore more precise than an often misunderstood acronym.

He very briefly outlines the history of the debate in the universities, churches and nation. It was more than a theological argument, but not less than one. Other forces were at work as well. The liberation of the Netherlands from Spain is in the background. Some saw the Remonstrance as favorable toward a friendly relationship with Spain (many of the merchants concerned about trade). The political class, clergy and lower classes tended to be critical of the Remonstrance as a result. This doesn’t mean there weren’t real and important theological issues at play, but just some non-theological reasons people may have had to embrace or reject theological positions. We are not always logical or driven by truth.

Arminius was a “Calvinist” and studied under Theodore Beza who was asked to refute the divergent theology of Dirk Volkertszoon Coornhert. He ended up embracing his theology and was so popular in articulating them that these views were named after him instead (Arminianism is easier to say than Coornhertism).

After he became a professor at the University of Leiden, his colleague Gomarus opposed his views. While both espoused a doctrine of predestination, they differed greatly in what they meant by it. After Arminius’ death, a number of his followers met in Gouda and produced a document called the Remonstrance, outlining their protest against the official doctrine of the Reformed Church. This was in 1610, and they expressed these in the Five Arminian Articles. The distinctions were often vague, but would become more clear as time went on.

After some political controversy, a national synod was called by Prince Maurice. Some might think the government should not be involved but this was a state church and they had a vested interest in the debate being resolved. As noted above, not all the members were Dutch. 26 were from Britain, Switzerland and Germany. The synod met in 1618 and 1619. This means that the controversy was nearly 20 years old- far longer than many of the tempests in teapots that I’ve seen in the last 30 years of ministry.

The Arminians were given an opportunity to respond to “first drafts”. The canons were adopted on April 22, 1619. They responded to the 5 points of Arminianism, with 5 points of their own (subsequently expressed in TULIP by English speaking people).

The first chapter concerns the first main point of doctrine, God’s Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination. The heart of the controversy revolves around the question of whether God chose the elect so they would believe or because they believed (foreseen faith). The Reformed held to the former, and the Arminians the latter. The Reformed began with the reality of original sin. Our fallen condition required God’s election of some to salvation, the sending of the Son to live, die and be raised for sinners, and the sending of messengers with the gospel message.

Contrary to many accusations I have heard, the Canons are clear that we are chosen in Christ, our redemption is through Christ and we trust in Christ. This is a Christ-centered document for a Christ-centered theology.

They also upheld a single decree of election, while the Arminians held to two. For Arminians, the first is unconditional, that God wills the salvation of all sinners. The second is conditional, that only those who believe receive that salvation. We see the beginnings of neo-nomianism in Arminianism. Not only did they have a different view of predestination, but a different view of justification. They held that faith is righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe.

DeYoung also quickly discusses the issue of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The Canons assume an infralapsarian position, that God elects to save sinners from destruction. It is not election apart from our sinful condition. People aren’t condemned because they are “reprobate” but because they are sinners who have sinned and refused to believe in Christ (another sin).

In many places DeYoung notes the pastoral concerns raised in the Canons. They sought to help struggling Christians. This is not intended to be dry theology, but also to meet pastoral needs. This is a good example for denominational study committees. This was one of my complaints about the Nashville Statement. As one of my preaching professors would say, “Where’s the gospel?”. Part of this is the articles regarding how to properly teach and respond to these doctrines. Another aspect was the salvation of the infants of believers. The Arminian opinions connect that to the age of reason, such that children are innocent. The Canons connect it to the gracious covenant and promises of God. This is because people are fallen, even infants.

The second chapter moves to the 2nd point of doctrine, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the doctrine of limited or particular or definite atonement. Commonly this is conceived of as the extent of the atonement. It is that, and the nature of the atonement. DeYoung notes that the emphasis in the Canons of Dordt is “about how God’s justice can be satisfied.” Scripture connects the cross with both God’s love and justice. If we are sinners, and we are, justice must be satisfied.

His atonement is of infinite value. It could sufficiently atone for the sins of the whole world. But Dordt argues that this was not God’s eternal intention. They did not believe a universal atonement  was necessary for universal gospel proclamation. To understand Dordt’s position, he backs up to explain the Arminian position. The Arminian view is rooted in God’s “will of intent” to save all, and neo-nomianism. They hold that Jesus made people saveable. The Reformed view is that Jesus actually saved people. God’s will, not man’s, is what makes the atonement efficient or efficacious.

DeYoung then moves in to a (too) brief discussion of the meaning of “world”. It can mean “the world as the sum total of all created things”, “the dwelling place of man, earth” and “fallen creation in subjection to the evil one.” Jesus died for all kinds of people, not every single person.

“Most often, world refer to badness instead of bigness, and when it refers to bigness, world means everyone without distinction, not everyone without exception.”

These distinctions were taken seriously. Gomarus challenged another delegate to a duel for expressing a divergent view. That would make presbytery meetings a little too interesting.

Also entering his discussion was Davenport’s “hypothetical  or conditional universalism”, an attempt to find an acceptable middle ground between Lutheranism and Anglicanism. The particular atonement of Dordt is meant to magnify Christ as the Savior of sinners.

DeYoung addresses the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine in his 3rd chapter, Human Corruption, Divine Conversion. The reality of our corruption necessitates divine conversion. They reject any Pelagian notions of imitation. We inherit corruption from our first parents. We have “an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity.”  We need more than a little help and assistance. We need God to convert us.

Dordt distinguishes between the general earnest call of the gospel, and a saving effectual call. The preaching of the gospel is not restricted, but it is not effective apart from the sovereign, irresistible, call by the Spirit. This despite the frequent drumbeat of human responsibility by Dordt. We are to blame for rejecting the gospel. The Spirit does more than persuade us. Regeneration precedes and produces faith rather than following faith. Arminian loses sight of this because they lose sight of the distinction between union and communion. They lean on the passages speaking of communion to “prove” faith precedes regeneration as a result.

The last point of doctrine is found in the 4th chapter which covers the perseverance of the saints. It affirms that the saints struggle with sin in this life. They can fall into serious sin, being “carried away by the flesh, the world and Satan.” We are in need of God’s help to stand firm in the faith.

“The doctrine of perseverance does not negate repentance; it leads to repentance.”

DeYoung and Dordt goes into the doctrine of assurance. We can truly be saved but not be assured of our salvation because while we are positionally holy (having Christ’s righteousness) we are not personally holy yet. A holy life helps assurance. Some of the means for salvation and assurance are Word and sacraments.

“We need a God who does the unconditional electing, a God who does the effectual dying, a God who does the supernatural resurrecting, a God who does the unilateral gifting, and a God who does the unbreakable preserving.”

DeYoung has produced a great little and helpful book. It is worth the investment of time to understand the controversy and how the Reformed Church responded to it. It is well-worth reading.

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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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Finally! This was the reason I really bought the book. I’ve been pondering on how to foster evangelism among the members of my congregation, many of whom are introverts. Our congregation could be identified as “introverted.”

This does not relieve the congregation of the responsibility to bear witness to Christ. Jesus won’t say, “Oh, it’s okay. I know you are an introvert.”

But introversion will often shape how such a person and a congregation bears witness and evangelizes.

The term “evangelism” often strikes fear in the hearts of introverts. This is frequently due to false assumptions about what it must look like. We may picture open air preaching, or going door-to-door to talk to complete strangers. We think it means engaging the person next to us on the airplane. We think it requires the mental dexterity, speed of thought (not thoughtfulness) many of us lack.

For some people it does mean those things. Most of those people are quite extroverted. We see them doing their thing on YouTube, and they write the books on evangelism that make most of wish for the 2nd Advent, now.

“Truthfully, most introverted Christians I know would be delighted to bless the evangelistic efforts of extroverts and return to their lives of solitude and contemplation with a sigh of relief.”

In Introverts in the Church, McHugh notes that introverts must be wary of falling into a private understanding of our faith. But neither should we assume that we must evangelize like Billy Graham, the local expert in Evangelism Explosion or some other gifted evangelist you know. God doesn’t want you to be them, He wants to use YOU.

Evangelism isn’t about being the best “used car salesman” and closing the deal. I know people who seem to be “closers”, but most of us aren’t. We are ordinary people trying to be faithful and trusting that God is working thru, above and beyond our meager efforts.

McHugh proposes that we be people willing to explore mystery together rather than the salesman pitching salvation to people who didn’t think they needed it. This reveals some of his more emergent leanings (based on names he dropped earlier in the book). So it is difficult to differentiate between how he thinks introverts share the gospel and his postmodern leanings at times. Particularly this one.

There is also some confirmation bias for me. His approach is more relational, which confirms much of what I’ve been thinking. Introverts generally don’t talk to strangers, but as we grow in relationship we share more of ourselves, including our faith. Our faith is not shared out of our strength, but often out of our weakness. This treasure is in jars of clay. Our weakness often reveals the connection point for the gospel. This means witnessing is less confrontational (the gospel still confronts them even as it invites them).

“Our deepening friendships with seekers involve a deepening process of intimacy and vulnerability. … The gospel paradox is that when we reveal our own weaknesses, we come in touch, and put others in touch, with the One who has the ability to heal. … We subject ourselves to the same questions we pose to others, and as we traverse them together, we may arrive at surprising conclusions we could never have reached when simply trying to defeat another’s logic.”

His understanding of evangelism ends up looking very much like spiritual direction. He notes much changed for him when he started to realize he was not initiating spiritual conversations so much as responding to how God was already at work in that person’s life. It became about “cultivating spiritual awareness.” As I ponder this, the entry points may often be the places where they are emotional (angry, glad, anxious) or depressed.

Bearing witness to Christ, his sufferings and subsequent glories (1 Peter 1) can take different forms. At times it is confrontational as a person’s double-mindedness draws forth the bluntness of the Gospel (choose you this day…). I’ve had those conversations. At some point the person must believe or not, leaving their excuses behind. But leading up to that, you can leave plenty of hints or bits and pieces rather than a packaged gospel presentation.

In my own evangelism I should remember the lessons I should have learning in my counseling training. When encountering resistance, point it out. Don’t try to plow thru it with “shock and awe”. Rather, “you seem to be putting up some walls right now. What’s going on?”, inviting them to share their fears, doubts or whatever is going on, if they want to.

McHugh notes the quote often erroneously attributed to Francis of Assissi- “preach the gospel at all times- if necessary use words.” He fully affirms the need for words. He also reminds us that our words often need to be backed up by actions that adorn the gospel and make it attractive. We love them. After all, didn’t God love us when we were ungodly, weak, enemies and sinners (Romans 5)? Isn’t the gospel that God loved us first and sent the Son as an atoning sacrifice (1 John 3)? As a result, we can and should embrace a holistic approach to evangelism. Some may call that a “social gospel” but only if the goal isn’t the gospel. Many conservatives are allergic to “justice” or “mercy” as a part of evangelism. We are showing them justice and mercy so they will have a better grasp of who God is, not making justice and mercy the gospel. Nor calling them to justice and mercy apart from Christ who is just  and One in whom the ungodly are justified.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6

McHugh offers some more practical suggestions at the end of the chapter.

  1. Narrow your focus. Instead of trying to share the gospel with everyone you meet, develop a few relationships you already have. These are people you’ll be friends with whether or not they come to faith. But share that part of your life with them.
  2. Ask open ended questions. Don’t do it out of the blue or in a heavy handed fashion. They can be natural out-growths of your conversation or current events.
  3. Ask for time when you don’t have a good answer. It is okay if you need to research a question they ask. It shows humility, that you don’t have it all together and expect them to have it all together.
  4. Don’t accept the premise of their question. He gets this from Leo McGarry (West Wing chief of staff). This has to do with accusatory questions. Flip the question to challenge their premise. The example he gives is flipping “How can you possibly believe in a God who would condemn people to hell?” to “Perhaps the real question is how could humans rebel against a God who created such a beautiful world?” Not really the best example. Perhaps, “What do you suggest God do with wicked people?”
  5. Find a comfortable environment. You could invite them to Christianity Explored, or a Bible Study that investigates the claims of the gospel. Maybe discussion boards. Don’t debate. Explore.
  6. Know your role. You may not bring that person from darkness to light. You are, or should be, a part of a community of faith. Getting them in touch with your community is a great thing. A healthy body will contribute to the process according to each person’s gifts and strengths.

As I noted, much of this confirmed what I was thinking already. That might be helpful. I could have done without the postmodern approach at times. I’m not advocating modernism. But we can’t assume a person has a postmodern world view. Or that the best way to grasp the gospel is thru the postmodern lens. The Bible, and the gospel, transcend philosophical frameworks and actually challenge them. But that is a different discussion.

 

 

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I’ve been wanting to read some of John Perkin’s books for some time now. His new book, Dream with Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win, is a great place to start.

This book is a little bit of everything. Partially autobiographical you get insight into the events that have shaped John’s life and ministry. This also gives people like me a better grasp of the black experience in America.

He also provides some background to Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and summarizes the Three R’s (relocation, reconciliation and redistribution). He also allows himself to dream and invites us to share his dream.

So, there is a little bit of everything John is about in this book. Hopefully it will pique interest in his other books to develop areas on interest more deeply.

John has about a third grade education, and notes he had some help in the process of writing (we all need good editors). As a result the book is easy to understand and generally easy to read. It is not overly complex but not simplistic either. At times it does seem to change direction unexpectedly. There is a stream of consciousness feel to it as if you’re sitting down and listening to John over a cup of tea (you can have coffee if you’d like).

He begins with his story as part of the larger story of segregation in America. Things most of us take for granted were out of the realm of possibility for many/most black Americans. For instance, he noted not only blacks having different waiting rooms for the doctor, but not having appointments. They were for white people, and blacks got the left over time on a first come, first served basis. The medical clinic he founded in Mendenhall was intended to help blacks gain access to health care as if they were white people. And they didn’t exclude whites.

“Black citizens weren’t allowed to participate in the society they had spent centuries helping to build.”

He then shifts into the history of the CCDA. It is based on a biblical view of a new humanity in Christ living and working together for the common good. It is a vision of a “multiethnic, multicultural, multigenerational, multiclass” community based on the same elements in God’s kingdom.

Perkins returns to race relations more specifically in talking about poor whites. Often the only relationships in which they had an power was in their relationships with blacks. They were often damaged and gained some sense of power and worth by playing the oppressor toward the one group lower on the social scale then they were. This, in turn, damaged them even more (oppression damages both the oppressed and the oppressor).

“Wealthy whites also used the poor whites as tools of oppression, making them overseers or guards or sheriffs charged with taking care of the dirty work to keep black people in their place so they didn’t have to. In reality, though, this just fueled the resentment between blacks and poor whites.”

He moves toward his experience with non-violence in the face of oppression. The move away from this is one of the things that concerns him about the present and the future. He believes people have the power to win with love, but often think they don’t (or don’t have the time) and resort to violence and rioting that makes they no better than their oppressors.

“In the face of power, some resort to violence as a way to create chaos. That’s terrorism. That’s what people use when they don’t have the power to win. Nonviolence is a better way. It’s radical.”

“I quickly came to realize that nonviolence takes more strength than violence- and it takes more than just human strength. It takes God’s strength working in human beings to produce self-control, gentleness, and the other fruit of the Holy Spirit. God’s power comes in our weakness and brokenness.”

From here he moves into the 3 R’s mentioned above. To assist a community, he believes it is best to live there. This often means relocating into the community so you help from the inside, not the outside (and security of your gated community). While there you seek reconciliation between groups and individuals in conflict. This can be race, class, culture or other barriers used by sin to divide and impoverish. He speaks of the redistribution of opportunity, not free stuff. Not working robs people of dignity. He addresses stewardship- sharing our skills and opportunities (like networks) with people who don’t have those skills or opportunities. These new relationships give the poor new opportunities. In the Gospel we see Jesus “relocating” to planet Earth as a man, reconciling all creation to God through the cross and making Himself poor to enrich others. This notion of incarnation is addressed in the next chapter.

“Reconciliation is God bringing people into relationship with Himself and other people. Redistribution is caring for others’ needs as we care for our own.”

“I long to see the church give up its power and privilege the way Jesus did when he came to earth to give us the greatest of gifts.”

Perkins then talks about justice, and the differences between theology done by whites and blacks. He speaks in generalizations, obviously, but those differences affect how we view justice. White evangelical theology has focused on the personal side of redemption thanks to our commitment to individualism (among other things and despite some people’s commitment to covenant theology). Black theology, often written in response to white oppression sees redemption as communal as well as individual. Both are true and in tension with one another. But we tend to be polarized and talk past one another (on many topics unfortunately). He notes how both sides have sins in need of repentance and forgiveness.

After a very personal chapter about his son Spencer, he moves into human dignity, the final fight (love) and forgiveness. I’m not sure about the order there but all three are important if we are to discuss reconciliation and justice. He sees the church as the primary communicator of these truths. Sadly, we’ve allowed tribalism (Democrat vs. Republican, black vs. white, poor vs. rich etc.) to set in so we now disparage those who disagree with us (unAmerican, denier, homophobic etc.). He mentions immigration in particular (recognizing government’s role as possibly different from a Christian’s view) as a place we should be able to talk, and disagree, peaceably.

“So becoming a Christian is discovering God’s love for us, and being a Christian is learning to love God back- and then finding ways to show God’s overflowing love to the people around us.”

I certainly agree with him that the noise in our culture is too loud and we must move beyond it to think and act as responsible people instead of performing a series of knee jerk reactions that perpetuate the conflicts of our time.

“There is too much noise in our society right now, and that noise just keeps getting louder. We need quiet time for reflection. We need to be still and know that God is God.”

He briefly concludes with his dream which shouldn’t surprise us if we were paying attention throughout the book. It is the dream of a civil rights leader and Christian. It is a dream we should all share, one that is not simply about externals but about the heart. I leave John Perkins with the final word.

“I want to see a real community of love. Everyone wants to fight crime, fight violence, fight racism, and fight injustice, but love is still the final fight, and unless we have these communities of love, we will never see this dream realized.”

[I received a complementary copy from Baker Books for the purposes of review.]

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Last night I spent the two and a half hours watching The Revenant. It was a bit plodding, and at times it was clearly brutal, and confusing. It was also oddly theological.

It begins with an attack on a trapping party in a northern wilderness in the 1820’s. You aren’t sure why they are being attacked, but as the story unfolds, it seems to be connected with a missing young Souix woman. Or that could be a different tribe of Native Americans that comes along. Hence my on-going confusion. Little did I realize that this search for Powaqa was so central to the story line as Glass keeps coming close to being killed by this driven group of men.

Glass was a tracker and woodsman with a Native American son. He was the guide for the (illegal?) trapping party which seeks to make its way back to their fort after the attack.  It is along the way that Glass encounters an angry momma bear who mauls him horribly.

This is the other key event of the movie. Captain Henry, who values Glass, returns to the fort while leaving the nearly dead Glass in the care of 3 other party members, including Glass’s teenage son. Fitzgerald is a man who fears death, and the Native Americans who he believes are on their trail. Unable to move under his own power, Glass is slowing them down. He wants to abandon Glass and digs a grave. Glass’s son refuses to leave his father. Glass is able to watch but unable to stop as Fitzgerald kills his son, buries Glass alive and leaves. He deceives the other young man who didn’t witness all of this.

Glass pulls himself out of the grave, driven by his thirst for vengeance. Ans so he crawls toward the fort using only his arms through the frozen wilderness. Eventually he is able to walk and continues his trek despite only having a canteen and the bear skin. He faces the threats of cold, animals and the party searching for Pawaqa.

Amazingly he avoids death and comes across a young Pawnee man eating raw buffalo meat. He receives mercy from this man whose tribe was killed by the Souix. He is moving south to find more Pawnee. The subject of revenge comes up, as you imagine it might from a man who is only alive to gain revenge. “Revenge is the Creator’s.” I’m not sure from whence his notion came, but it is an echo of Romans 12.

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

The two men travel together as the Pawnee cares for the still healing Glass. That is until he stumbles upon a French group who kill him while Glass sleeps during a storm. Glass discovers these Frenchmen have a young Native American woman. He decides to assist her while she is being raped (yet again). While they are distracted by Glass who takes the Pawnee’s horse to escape, Pawaqa is able to escape. In the distance Glass hears the battle as the Souix gain their vengeance on the Frenchmen who abducted Pawaqa. Glass, however, had left his distinctive canteen behind.

The lone remaining Frenchman has this canteen when he stumbles into the fort. This prompts Captain Henry to gather a search party to find his friend. While he is gone, Fitzgerald steals the Captain’s money and literally heads to the hills. After discovering this, Henry and Glass pursue Fitzgerald into the mountains.

It is as Glass is on the brink of gaining his revenge that two things happen. First, he sees the Souix hunting party. Second, he remembered that “Revenge is God’s.” He pushes Fitzgerald into the water and the current takes him to the Souix who kill him.  As the Souix ride by Glass, you see Pawaqa which explains why Glass is the only white man they don’t kill.

What it was over I thought “God must be a group of angry Souix”.

As I thought more, I was reminded that God often used “the nations” to bring judgment on His people. He used the Assyrians to judge the northern kingdom. It was equally ungodly Babylon who was used to judge Judah.

In Romans 13 (don’t forget, the chapter divisions are note original) we see that the State bears the power of the sword to bring His vengeance upon the wicked.

In The Revenant we see this Souix hunting or war party as the instrument of vengeance upon a variety of wrong-doers. While uncertain about the original battle, clearly the Frenchmen (murders, woman-stealers and rapists) and Fitzgerald (murder, betrayal and deceit).

24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 1 Timothy 5

Sometimes what seems like chance or coincidence is God working to bring the truth to light, to bring people to judgment. C.S. Lewis notes that “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Perhaps The Revenant is more than vaguely theological, but theologically driven. For eyes that see it is, as God works through this series of coincidences to bring a number of wicked men to judgment. This judgment was not “traditional”, but in disputed territory it can come in unexpected ways. And when the legal authority is part of the problem it may come in unexpected ways.

In the words of Steve Brown, “you think about that.”

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James notes something quite important about the effects of faith:

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1

James is merely applying the message of the Old Covenant to the church. These priorities are there. Protestants have typically focused on the last of these, sanctification. In the 19th century a number of orphanages were built by leading figures like Charles Spurgeon and George Mueller. In recent days we’ve seen the focus on adoption arise, in part because of this verse.

But what about widows? We haven’t focused on that very much which is to our detriment in my opinion. Though I’ve been a pastor since 1998 and a number of congregants have become widows in that time, I surely haven’t cared for them as well as I ought to have. The subject really isn’t talked about much.

Recently our men’s study went through 1 Timothy and we spent a night talking about this. At about the same time one of our members became a widow. There just don’t seem to be any books on caring for widows.

Thankfully Crossway has just released Caring for Widows by Brian Croft and Austin Walker. It is not a very long book, and it is filled with very short chapters. In this way it can quickly help pastors, deacons and ministry leaders know why they should care for widows and provide some practical ways of caring for the widows in your midst.

The first section is written by Austin Walker. Austin focuses on the precepts, principles and examples found in Scripture to communicate that widows should be cared for and how they were cared for. As a result, he focuses on God’s love and concern for widows since they were among the most vulnerable members of society. Jewish law made provision for them (tithing, gleaning, Levirate marriage) so that poverty would not destroy them or tempt them to use sinful means to survive. God demanded justice and compassion for the widows, and if they failed He would hear their cries and bring curses on Israel.

Austin also points us to God’s work to provide for particular widows. There is a chapter on Ruth and Naomi. He also reminds of of the widows that Elijah and Elisha ministered to in miraculous ways to demonstrate God’s loving compassion. Jesus also cared for widows, raising one’s dead son and making sure His own mother would be cared for prior to His death. We also see how the early church provided for widows in the book of Acts.

As noted above, the chapters are short. Walker doesn’t waste much time. There is no fluff there, but he does a fairly thorough job making his point. Any church officer or ministry leader can’t avoid his point: we need to care for the widows that God has placed in our care.

Brian Croft writes the second section of the book which focuses on some particular ways we can and should care for widows. These include the private ministry of the Word, equipping the congregation to come along side them, what it means to visit in various situations (home, hospital and nursing home),writing notes and cards, and celebrating holidays with them.

Their needs are not simply financial. He could have spent a little more time on this, at least in helping churches evaluate which widows need financial assistance or working them through the process of downsizing so they can care for themselves. Ideally, husbands provide for their spouses through savings and life insurance. Here in America, Social Security provides some benefits. But these may be insufficient should health problems arise. The family should care for them, and then the church.

The church needs to show them compassion even if they are not helping them financially. They have emotional, relational and practical needs that used to be met by their husbands which are no longer being met. Particularly if family is not nearby, the church becomes important in meeting these needs. It could be as simple as a deacon coming by to change A/C filters to fixing leaky faucets or other repairs. It is also a ministry of friendship by men acting like sons to her, or younger women acting like daughters.

In terms of visitation, I was a little surprised by how short his hospital visits were. I’ve often found people in the hospital to be quite bored and willing to visit unless they were in great pain or other distress. He is right in that the dynamics change when someone is in the hospital. But whenever we visit it is important to include the ministry of the Word and prayer.

There are also times when a widow’s loneliness is more profound: anniversaries, holidays and birthdays. These are times to send notes and cards reminding them that they are loved by God and you.

He “caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (Job 29:13). That should be the aim of the church in ministering the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ to widows. It is not only the ministry the church should undertake, but it is an integral part of that biblical religion which James defined as “pure and undefiled … before God and the Father” (James 1:27).

Taking care of the widows among us does not make for a dynamic program. But it is an important part of church ministry. This little book helps equip us for this important ministry. This is a book pastors, deacons and leaders should read, and implement.

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“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Some people don’t need to enter anywhere to abandon hope. Some people can’t seem to abandon hope no matter how bad the circumstances.

I was listening to an interview with a former career Navy Seal. Part of the unspoken agenda of “Hell Week” is to bring the candidates to the point of despair, the point of giving up or thinking they are going to die. For him it was the pool. When you face death and lose your fear of death you build a wise soldier (not a reckless soldier). This builds the attitude of hope, so to speak, the idea that any problem or situation can be solved when we work together. Even if it means you or your team mate may die in the process.

There is something there to help us understand what is should mean to be a Christian. We have faced death & condemnation and been delivered by Christ. We should no longer fear death and live in hope thru the living Christ who has overcome the world.

But … just as not everyone is wired to be a Seal, not every Christian is wired to, or called to be, a martyr.

Augustine hits on this. Sort of.

In Homily 33 on the Gospel of John he said this:

“The Lord is gentle, the Lord is longsuffering, the Lord is tender-hearted; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. You are being granted time for correction; you, though, love putting it off more than putting it right.”

We all tend to fixate on one or two attributes of God, the ones that fit our general temperment. This puts us at risk. Augustine posits this in the fact that God is more than the attributes we fixate on. He is longsuffering AND just; tender-hearted AND just. The true God shocks us at times. He’s not what we want Him to be. He isn’t less, but more than we want Him to be (to steal a Kellerism).  When God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex. 33-34) He revealed both His abundant mercy and His persistent justice.

“Because God is tender-hearted, God is good, God is gentle. These people are endangered by hope.”

Those fixated on God’s gentleness are often endangered by hope. They forget God’s justice and holiness and think they have forever and a day to repent.

“Endangered by despair, however, are those who have fallen into grave sins, thinking that they can no longer be forgiven, even if they repent, and see themselves as certainly destined for damnation. They thus say to themselves,’We are already going to be damned; why not do whatever we want?'”

They are fixated on the justice and holiness of God and do not see His mercy, goodness, compassion and patience. They veer into despair when they sin as if they have exhausted God’s mercy.

“Despair kills these, the others are killed by hope. The mind, the spirit, fluctuates between hope and despair. Be on the watch lest hope kill you and, while pinning your hopes on mercy, you come under judgment; be on the watch as well lest despair kill you, and, while assuming you cannot be forgiven for the grave sins you have committed, you refuse to repent and run into the judgment of Wisdom, who say, I too will laugh at you ruin (Prov. 1:26).”

While we must embrace hope, we should beware of of any hope that says I don’t need to repent. At times we must despair, but beware of any despair that says “there is no grace left for me.”

Each of us have a tendency toward hope or despair. This is not absolute. Hopeful people can experience despair and despairing people can experience hope. But you will have a tendency toward one that poses a danger to you as you face your sin. As a result you will have to spend more time meditating on the opposite attributes of God. Those who despair need to consciously fixate on God’s mercy and patience. Those who “indulge” in excessive hope (one that puts off repentance presuming on mercy) need to fixate on God’s justice (not to the exclusion of mercy).

Perhaps this is part of the current debate over law and gospel with regard to sanctification in Reformed circles. Perhaps some are fixating on mercy. Perhaps others, fixated on justice, emphasize the role of the Law. Some are abounding in hope, and others while not despairing, warn against a superficial view of grace that forgets God’s justice as also revealed in the Gospel.  Just a thought.

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In the book blurbs C.J. Mahaney (please don’t make DeYoung guilty by association based on what you think or suspect Mahaney has done) notes:

“I’m sure this will be the best book on the Heidelberg Catechism I’ve ever read. I know it will be the first.”

Sadly I think this would apply to most American Christians. Most have probably never even heard of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC), much less a book on it. While my own denomination holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith, we hold the HC in high esteem as an expression of Reformed Theology. Each has their strengths. One of the strengths of the HC is its pastoral tone (the Westminster is more theological in tone, thought it does express some pastoral concerns) and it’s structure. It is not structured like a systematic theology but is structured largely around the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. It uses these three as guides to instruct us in basic theology and Christian living. It was designed for children but is suitable for adults. The questions are broken into 52 sections so the whole catechism is covered in the span of a year.

“We need the gospel to remind us that we are still practicing sinners whose only hope for both eternal life and today’s blessings from God are ‘Jesus’ blood and righteousness.'” Jerry Bridges in the Foreward

The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism was taken from Kevin DeYoung’s weekly articles in the church newsletter. This is an introduction to the HC so the chapters are not long or exhaustive. Don’t mistake that for shallow or superficial. DeYoung usually does a good job of identifying the main points he must stress in a given week. He is not overly technical, so less theologically-oriented or experienced Christians can understand and benefit from what he has to say about the HC.

DeYoung properly notes that the structure of the HC is important (as does Bridges in the Foreward: guilt => grace => gratitude). He brings this up when talking about the Law. The purpose of the Law for Christians is to show us the way of gratitude, how we please God and what it looks like to become like Christ. As Israel receive the Law AFTER being redeemed from Egypt, we must remember that as Christians we have already been redeemed and do not seek to redeem ourselves by our obedience. This is not just an Old Testament idea, but as Bridges notes it is also the pattern of Romans (and Paul’s other general letters).

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One of the newer challenges to God and the Scriptures is to question the morality of God, particularly in the Old Testament. Both atheists and liberal theologians are finding this to be a fertile field right now. It is this challenge that Greg Beale meets in his booklet The Morality of God in the Old Testament.

He does not simply dismiss the charges made by others that God is essentially immoral to command acts often considered evil. His response is a mere 40 or so pages. It is not easy reading, but rises to the challenge. He lays out a 5-fold approach that he believes answers this problem. But first he mentions 2 common, but unsatisfactory, responses.

  1. Wartime Ethics Are Legitimately Different from Peacetime Ethics. Tied into this is the fact that we tend to judge the Scriptures based on our wartime ethics. As late as Vietnam we had no problem engaging in carpet bombing. In more recent conflicts we are loathe to harm civilians (unless using drones) in policies that often put our soldiers at risk. We are concerned about perception and ignore the reality of the threat they face in conflict. But this booklet isn’t about that ethical dilemma. While it is common for us to speak of a wartime ethic, Scripture doesn’t seem to offer us one explicitly.
  2. The Divine Command to Kill All Women and Children Is Not Meant to be Taken Literally.  Some argue that documents  from the ANE use exaggerated language in describing conquest similar to this. It refers essentially to thoroughly defeating the enemy. It functions as a rhetorical device. However, the Scriptures clearly indicate that particular people, like Rahab, were spared because they aligned themselves with Israel. Others escaped. So this argument does not seem to hold.

His proposed 5-fold approach tries to look at the problem from different angles. It is not a simplistic answer to the questions raised by atheists, agnostics and liberals. It is, I think, a thorough answer.

  1. The Commands Demonstrate God’s Justice in Response to Their Immorality and Idolatry in a Unique Redemptive-Historical Circumstance. That is a mouthful! During Abraham’s years in the Promised Land, we are told the Canaanites’ sin was not yet full. God was not ready to judge them. See how patient He is with societies and cultures. It was not that Abraham’s family wasn’t big enough, but they hadn’t sinned enough yet. By the time of the conquest they had. God was not just giving Israel the land, but judging the Canaanites. This is unique because there is no other Promised Land that needs to be conquered. The commands were not binding, but tied to the circumstances of the conquest. He was using the Israelites to execute His justice against them (just as He would Assyria against the Northern Kingdom and Babylon, and later Rome, against Judah). Everyone died because everyone was guilty and part of an utterly corrupt culture.
  2. The Commands Were to Remove Moral Uncleanness as Part of a Unique Redemptive-Historical Commission to Purify the Land as a Sanctuary. He goes back to the Garden and the Creation Mandate. Adam was to expand the borders of the Garden as a sanctuary for God. Israel was to treat the Land as a sanctuary. They were a corporate form of Adam as a kingdom of priests. After the conquest, the civil law laid out severe penalties for those guilty of similar sexual and cultic sins as the Canaanites.
  3. God’s Sovereignty Justifies His Command to Annihilate the Canaanites. As the Scriptures teach, He will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy and hardens whom He will harden. And judge too!. God is free to deal with us as He chooses. While we may be relatively better or worse that other people, in God’s eyes we are all sinners who fall short of His glory and have earned the wages of sin which are death. God is free to annihilate any nation He wants to annihilate. We usually see His patience and mercy, and therefore presume upon them as if they were required of Him.
  4. God’s Command is an Anticipation of the End-Time Judgment of All People, and Thus a Suspension of the Expression of His Common Grace to Unbelievers during the Epoch of Israel. This is pretty much Kline’s intrusion ethic. This is an intrusion of the final judgment in which God will annihilate all who are not His. This is not the only type of the final judgment we see in Scripture. We also see the destruction of Samaria, Judah, Babylon, Assyria and other nations. There is evidence for this in how the NT uses the OT in judgment passages.
  5. God’s Command and the Imprecatory Psalms Anticipate the End-Time Judgment When Love of the Unbelieving Neighbors Ceases. While we are to love our neighbor now, in the final judgment we will not love all our neighbors but only those who love Christ as we do. God’s mercy and patience toward unbelievers reaches an end. He reveals His holy hatred for sin and the wicked.

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I’ve tried to become less reactionary in my blogging. I might have made some progress, or perhaps I’ve just been busier and don’t think about it very much. Sometimes there is an article or blog post that comes to my attention that is so annoying that I feel compelled to consider it for blog fodder. This morning I read one of them called 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible. I suppose I am tempted to read too much into his Patheos post, but aware of this and will try my best to interpret his words well.

He is Roger Wolsey, a “progressive” United Methodist pastor. What he does is helpful because he does lay out his assumptions when he interprets the Bible. He doesn’t defend those assumptions, he just assumes they are superior to the assumptions held by “Fundamentalists”. By the way he articulates his argument you’d think there were only “Fundamentalists”, “Atheists” and “Progressives.” I am part of the great unknown (perhaps not to him but at least “Sir Not-Mentioned-in-this-Article”) that would fall under the category of Conservative and Confessional.

“All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible (to interpret) literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.”

Not sure I’d agree with that statement. Most people I know admit this and talk about how they discern the difference. Progressives are not superior to anyone in this matter. They don’t have “interpretative righteousness” as a result. I am bringing my men’s study through the book Bible Study that addresses many of these issues and I often verbalize these things as I preach or teach SS (the Revelation series was not an exception). I suggest he doesn’t give those pesky Fundamentalists enough credit. So much for the love (or charity) he talks about later. He seems to always paint them in a most negative light.

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No, this is not about climate change.

This is about a different kind of climate change. This is about the current climate in churches regarding homosexuality. Peter Hubbard is not only concerned about how individual Christians interact with homosexuals, but how congregations interact with, talk about and treat homosexuals. As a result, there as a chapter in Love Into Light: The Gospel, the Homosexual and the Church called Climate.

He begins by building a good analogy. In Revelation Jesus is revealed as the Lion who is a Lamb. He is a King as well as a Priest who sacrifices Himself. There is both strength and tenderness, righteousness and compassion. The Church is intended to reflect His glory and His character. Churches are tempted to focus on only one side of Christ and present a false face to the world, and homosexuals about who Christ is and what He thinks about them.

“When we talk as if homosexuals do not belong in the church, we misrepresent the gospel in at least three ways: “We are not sinners, you are,” “Sin comes in acceptable forms and unacceptable forms,” and “You will belong here only after you get your act together.” Each of these assumptions denies the power and process of the grace of Christ for real and lasting change.”

As an example of a “church” (and I use this term quite loosely) that is fixated on Christ as Lion, Hubbard gives Westboro Baptist Church. They stress the righteousness and justice of God, rightly calling sin sin. But they have no gospel (which is why I use the term church loosely). They think they have the ministry of condemnation, when we’ve actually been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5).

This kind of church, or Christian, focuses on the sinfulness side of things. There is an “us vs. them” mentality as though all homosexuals were militant activists seeking to destroy the Church. He recalls a time when a guest began to talk about homosexuals using stereotypes as though he’d get some laughs. He didn’t. This kind of church likes using the labels to ostracize people, keep them out because we don’t like “them.”

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The question of an individual’s relationship to the state is an important one. The answer reflects how one views the state and its responsibilities. Christians have given many answers to this question. In his discussion of the 5th Commandment in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John Frame gives the answers that various traditions have given.

Frame is of the opinion that the state is essentially the government of an incredibly large family. Such large scale government is far more complex than governing a nuclear or even extended family., In places like Romans 13 we see that God has ordained the State, it is not an accident or human invention (though there have been developments that are the product of human thinking). As Christians, we have dual citizenship. Becoming a Christian does not mean rejecting your earthly citizenship. Paul remained a Roman citizen. We should seek to be good citizens of both kingdoms.

In early non-Christian thought, there was the tendencies toward elitism and libertarianism. Frame notes that the rationalist moved toward totalitarianism. We see this in Greek thinking about the state. Some were born to rule, and some were born to be slaves. Plato’s Republic was not democracy, but ruled by philosopher kings. This was not what the Founding Fathers had in mind. But there is a strong tendency toward totalitarianism among political elites today. They know better than the hoi poloi, the masses. Machiavelli, for one, argued that rulers should increase their own glory thru non-traditional (immoral) means to accomplish their goals. This ends justifies the means thinking is prominent in the big government crowd.

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One of the free books I got at General Assembly was R.C. Sproul’s The Truth of the Cross. When I was a young Christian I discovered R.C. and his books and tapes (that’s how long ago it was) were an important part of my growth as a Christian. But I have not read much of his stuff in the last 15 years or so. So much to read, so little time.

“If anything has been lost from our culture, it is the idea that human beings are privately, personally, individually, ultimately, inexorably accountable to God for their lives.”

But I decided to read this one. I’d been wanting to read it, and now I owned it. This little book is typical R.C. Sproul, which is a good thing. A very good thing. My former professor has a knack for making theology easy to understand. Many of the recent books that have come out to defend the various attacks on the atonement have been excellent, but for the more theologically advanced audience. The reason R.C. was so instrumental to the resurgence of Reformed Theology is his ability to “put the cookies on the counter”. He’s accessible for all kinds of people.

“He is the One Who stands there, backing up our indebtedness, taking on Himself the requirement of what must be paid.”

As usual, R.C. brings the past into the present. We find Anselm, Augustine, Calvin, Luther and many more. That is another thing that makes his books great- introducing you to the great minds of the past.

He discusses the necessity of the atonement, the justice of God, the various aspects of the atonement (surety, ransom, redemption, freedom etc.), the place of the covenant and explaining particular, or limited, atonement. All this in his winsome, accessible style. But he is also clear about where the lines need to be drawn.

“If you take away the substitutionary atonement, you empty the cross of its meaning and drain all the significance out of the passion of our Lord Himself. If you do that, you take away Christianity itself.”

It is well worth reading for anyone who wants to better understand what Jesus was doing on the cross and why. And that should include every Christian.

Thank you to Ligonier Ministries for making this available to those of us at General Assembly. At least, I thought it was for free.

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We’ve had a number of events recently that have shaken many Americans to the core. The reality of evil was pressed home in painful fashion. Sadly, most Americans aren’t prepared to face the reality of evil. If people are considered basically good, then we essentially think such things should not happen here where we are educated and prosperous. Those things only happen there, wherever there may be. But not to us, not on our shores.

There are a number of books that have tried to tackle this problem. Some good. Some bland. And some quite horrible, like the sadly popular book by Rabbi Kushner about the God who wants to help but really can’t. He also assumes there are good people.

“To come to grips with the problem of evil and suffering, you must do more than hear heart-wrenching stories about suffering people. You must hear God’s truth to help you interpret those stories.”

Randy Alcorn has released The Goodness of God: Assurance of Purpose in the Midst of Suffering for this reason. It is a shorter version (120 pages) of his book If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering. It makes a readable, meaningful book that you can hand out to people who are suffering, or struggling with the suffering of others. He covers lots of ground in succinct fashion, including illustrations and examples to help people understand his point. It is not dry and academic. He writes of his own suffering and how he had to make sense of it. He believes any faith that doesn’t prepare you for suffering is not a biblical faith, and our churches must do a better job teaching biblical theology to prepare people for suffering.

“The pain of suffering points to something deeply and unacceptably flawed about this world we inhabit.”

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Super Hero movies are all the rage these days. I enjoy many of them. They are often about things our culture struggles with: technology, government etc. They often portray a world in which there is good and evil, and in which good ultimately prevails. Many of the Marvel heroes share in our foibles and weaknesses. They are not perfect. In a sense they give us a measure of hope that people can solve the crises before us.

But, I think, there is a potentially dark side to this “hero worship.” Or should I call it “hero longing”? The problem is not the heroes themselves, but the limitations of the heroes which, in part, creates their appeal to us.

Heroes deal with external evil. They rescue people from the tyranny and destruction of an evil being. They recognize that evil is “out there”. They are capable of dealing with evil out there.  And the evil “out there” needs to be dealt with. We do need someone to rescue us from evil people and evil structures.

This is one reason why so many rely on government- to rescue them from evil out there. Governments should be just, and punish evil doers (Romans 13). But it is what neither a hero nor a government can do that is just as important. Dealing with the evil within.

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It is hard to summarize the impact of an event.  I know I will not say all that could be said.  That’s because I don’t know all that could be said.  So, if you expect the authoritative statement of how 9/11 affected our nation and our world you will be sorely disappointed.

Some Positives

We Saw Heroic Actions- as we learned more about what transpired on 9/11 we learned of great acts of heroism.  We learned about some of the passengers on United 93 who fought the terrorists so they could not fulfill their plan.  They knew it would mean their own deaths, but the plane would not be used to kill others.

There were the many first responders who entered the twin towers knowing they probably, some definitely, would not make it out alive.  But they gave their lives to save the lives of others.  They are heroes.  As are the many people who surrendered days of their lives to search for survivors.

There are many heroes who decided, based on that day, to serve their country in far away places.  They loved their country and its citizens and offered their lives to keep them safe.

13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15

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I wrote this on 9/13/01 for our church newsletter.  I tried to offer some perspective.  I hope to follow this up with a “now” take.

Spring 2001 from the Staten Island Ferry

What is probably the single most horrible act of terrorism in history has ushered America into reality.  The so-called reality shows that are so popular now can never top live footage of two passenger jets colliding, purposefully, into the World Trade Center.  Until this moment we have been under the illusion of being invulnerable.

The horrific bombing in Oklahoma was done by one of our own.  Other acts of foreign terrorism on our shores have been minimal and shut out of our national consciousness.  Never again.  The world is filled with such acts, though not on this scale.  And we will never be the same.

The responses in our hearts are mixed.  We weep for the victims, their families and even ourselves.  We’ve been stripped of that illusion and it is painful.  There is also anger, even outrage.  I’m reminded of the song “If I had a Rocket Launcher” by Bruce Cockburn.  It was written after witnessing similar horrible acts in South America in the mid-80’s.  If he had one “some son of a b—  would die”.  That is how I feel at times.  Do you?

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 1 The wicked flee when no one pursues, … Proverbs 28

So begins True Grit.  The rest of it reads “… but the righteous are bold as a lion.”  Sounds like they have true grit.  The unseen narrator, an older Mattie Ross, informs us that a coward named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) shot and killed her father, and ran though no one followed.  Nothing in this life is free, she says, but the grace of God.  Like a lion, she is going to pursue.  The music in the background for much of the movie is the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

The Coen brothers say it is not a remake of the John Wayne classic.  But it pretty much follows the plot line except for a few minor deviations.  It is far more stark, however.  It takes place during winter in the Midwest.  Gone is technicolor, and Glen Campbell singing.  But added is the Coen brothers’ flair for dialogue, and Mattie gives them a great opportunity.  Her delivery reminds me of Holly Hunter in their also brilliant Raising Arizona.

She is also tougher than in the 1969 version.  She spends a night in a coffin.  She is dogged in her persistence in negotiation as well as pursuit.  Before she pursues Chaney, she must pursue Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn.  What we discover is not a woman marked by grace, but by law.  The daughter of a Mason, she is a hard teenager.  Like Javert she is going to pursue Chaney, except she is not the long arm of the law.  This movie is about vengeance, not justice.

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