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Posts Tagged ‘repentance’


In the first post, I covered the issue of temptation and sin as discussed in the Central Carolina Presbytery Committee Report on Revoice (CC). I also included reference to the North Florida Report on Same-Sex Attraction (NF). This subject took more space than I think the others will. There is more disagreement, even in the Reformed Community including the PCA, on the subject. We saw disagreement between the CC and NF reports, as well as between an older Kevin DeYoung blog post and this report he worked on.

We agree that sexual temptations arise from the remnant of sin within each of us. They are temptations to commit sin. We agree that such temptations (all temptations) should be mortified as Paul encourages in Romans 8 and Titus 2 among other places. The disagreement is about whether being tempted itself constitutes a sin.

“To conflate the two ignores the reality of God’s gracious promises of deliverance to those facing temptation (1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 2:18) and the sinless obedience of Jesus Christ in the face of temptation (Mt. 4:11; Heb. 4:15). Christians can be confronted with an opportunity to sin and, by the grace of God, resist the temptation and pursue obedience.” NF, pp. 3

There is fundamental agreement but the focus seems to be on the finer distinctions made. None of these differences imply that same-sex attraction (SSA) is morally neutral or “good”. They have a pastoral application as to whether the person has in fact sinned or is tempted. Those are treated differently: repentance vs. mortification. No person should experience church discipline for being tempted, but persistent patterns of sinful action should usually be addressed.

Further, when we consider the Westminster Shorter Catechism on repentance we see:

Question 87: What is repentance unto life?
Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

Repentance properly includes a “full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” That properly describes what happens if we don’t put our temptations to death. Temptations are not a matter under our control and therefore, themselves, a matter of obedience. Obedience is about whether we entertain those temptations or mortify them.

Temptations do reveal the depths and character of our remaining corruption. In addition to mortification, they are also an occasion for lament. They also reveal to us our on-going need for Jesus so we respond much like Paul in Romans 7- O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of sin? His answer and ours is to be Jesus. That is true no matter the types of temptations, and sins (which is the context of Romans 7), we experience and commit.

I hope I’ve said enough on that topic.

The Question of Identity

Related imageCC then shifts its attention to the question of identity. At times I will appeal to sections of the Missouri Presbytery report from their investigative committee (MP). It is my opinion that this has become something as a shibboleth for some. If you don’t say it the right way, with no regard what you mean by it, you are considered wrong and should be outside the boundaries of our community of faith (see Judges 12:1-6).

Labels do matter. And what people mean by the labels matters too. Communication includes both the speaker (and their intention) and the listener.

One of the things bringing criticism to Revoice is their use of the terms “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian.” The criticism is that these are (necessarily) terms of identity and they are therefore identifying themselves with their sinful inclinations at best, or sinful actions at worst. Revoice does, as we saw in the earlier post, affirm biblical sexuality and marriage. So theirs would presumably be a best case scenario.

The Scriptures speak of two fundamental identities: in Adam or in Christ. These can be expressed in many ways. For instance, regarding our identity in Adam, Paul refers to people in accordance with their dominant sin: the sexually immoral, idolators and adulterers among others (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Regarding our Christian identity we see Peter referring to Christians as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).

Additionally, our union and identity with Christ is to shape our thinking. We see this in Colossians 3:1-4. As the text unfolds in the following verses our actions, not just our thoughts, are to follow our new identity. Sanctification is the putting off of our old identity in Adam with its sin, and the putting on of our new identity in Christ which is righteous.

Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristThese ideas are developed by Rosaria Butterfield in her book Openness Unhindered. In particular in the chapters Identity (pp. 35-58) and Self-Representation: What Does It Mean to Be Gay? (pp. 113-136). Christopher Yuan offers a briefer treatment in Holy Sexuality and the Gospel (pp. 7-13).

CC recognizes that Revoice accepts at least some of the identity language of our culture. For instance, they use the term “sexual minority”. Even the terms “gay” and “homosexual” in some way bow to the Freudian origination of sexual orientation (see NF, pp. 4-5). Rosaria Butterfield also traces this development of use of orientation in Sexual Orientation: Freud’s Nineteenth Century Mistake (pp. 93-112).

Sam Allberry addresses all of this as well.

CC spends time delving into General Revelational arguments in this case. They are not ignoring Scripture (for there are plenty of quotes) but explaining and assessing the worldly theories that NF simply recognizes as worldly.

Adjectives, at times, may be helpful modifiers of the noun “Christian”. Reformed Christian differentiates me from Orthodox Christian, Evangelical Christian etc. American Christian may be used to differentiate me from an Asian or African Christian as well. Cultural background has an effect on how you tend to live out your faith.

The problem both CC and NF express is when the adjective describes a sinful inclination or action. Both reports acknowledge that due to the remnant of sin, many Christians continue to experience these sinful inclinations. Regeneration does not remove them in every instance. We don’t want to promise anyone that if they come to Jesus, they will suddenly have no more SSA. But the reports warn against using the terms “homosexual Christian” and “gay Christian”.

How and why does Revoice use those terms?

Revoice generally uses those adjectives to refer to their struggle, not their identity. In this they are following the lead of Wesley Hill, on of the keynote speakers from his earlier book, Washed and Waiting. In the introduction he explains his usage.

“I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian- someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit- will remain.” pp. 22

Later he writes:

“Washed and waiting. That is my life- my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God has promised to do. That is what this book is all about.” pp. 50

You can’t properly understand Revoice on this issue apart from this book. They should be more clear about that! They use Christian to express their identity. They use “gay” or “homosexual” to express their struggle.

In doing so they are addressing those who struggle with SSA and the gay community more than people like me and other PCA presbyters. Their audience shuts down, so the claim is made, with the terms SSA or ex-gay.

While I do not prefer their language, I seek to understand their meaning by the phrases instead of demanding they not use those terms based on how I’d use them. Instead of refusing to acknowledge how they are used and bearing false witness against them (imputing an erroneous meaning), we should faithfully express their intentions. We can criticize them for it, but we should properly interpret their intention, not the one that we think it should mean.

After her chapter on Self-Representation, Rosaria Butterfield has a chapter called Conflict: When Sisters Disagree. There she focuses on this particular disagreement. Rosaria strongly believes that the phrases not be used. Yet she wrote:

“The conservative Christian world is one of the only places where gay still means primarily an identity associated with a sociopolitical community.” pp. 139.

She focuses on the need for Christian love in these matters of disagreement. Those relationships may be complex, but we don’t cut them off. She notes:

“Friendship and neighborly proximity are necessary components to working through theological differences in Christian love. Ideas are not enough. … Ideas that divide must travel on the back of Christian life practices that allow us to stand shoulder to shoulder as we submit before our holy and loving God. This is the Christian labor of real neighbors.” (pp. 146)

I take those words to heart. I was dismayed when Rosaria responded to Revoice in a way that seemed inconsistent with those words, at least to me. She focused on her material on identity (which, I do agree with), but offered a very different tone to Revoice and the PCA than she seems to have offered her friend with whom she disagreed more profoundly.

MP offered caution to both Revoice and their detractors on this point. I find their counsel to both to be wise.

We agree that the way Revoice and Side B believers in general use terms has been confusing to many of our churches. But we reject the claim that this is because terms like “gay,” sexual orientation,” “queer,” and “sexual minorities” are always or necessarily unbiblical. These terms pose a particularly challenging problem for both the Revoice project and its critics. We encourage Revoice and those who would adopt such language to do so with great care, recognizing its potential to cause offense and division within the church. At the same time, we would encourage those who are inclined to hear such language and dismiss those who would use it, to charitably, sincerely, and carefully listen to what those people are intending to mean by it. The ongoing and evolving discussion of terminology around sexuality in the 21st century has led the committee to suggest that terminology be one area of study taken up by a General Assembly study/consensus-building committee. (pp. 61)

To one: be careful you don’t confuse or create unnecessary offense. To the other: be charitable and listen to what they actually mean. Don’t assume and accuse.

Summing Up

Revoice and the PCA (and other conservative denominations) agree that our identity is in Christ. The point of disagreement is on appropriate terms to be used to speak of professing Christians who struggle with SSA. As in many disagreements, we should define our terms so people don’t misunderstand what we are saying. We should also take those definitions at face value even if we tend to use a different definition.

Bottom Line:

Revoice is not using these terms to signify people who profess to be Christians but also embrace a gay lifestyle and/or their attraction to people of the same sex. Revoice is seeking to help them live as chaste Christians. They could clearly be more clear about that.

 

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There aren’t too many book about laziness. There aren’t too many books by Korean pastors in English either.

Busy for Self, Lazy for GodWhen I saw that Westminster Seminary Press translated and released Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim, I had some interest based on the subject.

I also had interest based on the author. One should not get stuck in an echo chamber, reading only people from your culture and sub-culture. Nam Joon Kim is a conservative Presbyterian pastor, but he lives in Korea and is part of a very different culture than mine. I wanted to gain a wider perspective on the issue; to see how his culture (or at least he) handles the Scriptures and does theology.

I have served in two denominations that have non-geographic Korean Presbyteries. They are largely Korean-speaking churches so there is not much in the way of interaction with the pastors at General Assembly or Synod. This is clearly unfortunate, depriving both them and us of benefits to be gained by cross-cultural conversations.

Back to the book.

Rev. Kim breaks the book into two main sections: describing laziness and its consequences, and then mortifying laziness. The forward by Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Seminary in PA, notes that Rev. Kim is part of the same theological tradition. As an avid  reader, he has delved deeply into the Puritans. The book is a bestseller in Korea and Chinese-speaking countries. Now we get to benefit from his work.

In his introduction, Rev. Kim notes:

“Also, I began to realize that laziness is not a simple issue to deal with, but is a very complex issue because the root rotting one’s soul is self-love, and self-love is complex matter reaching into every corner of our lives.”

Conversion does not immediately drive out laziness. He does mention that the Christian life is a cruciform life, “built upon our Spirit-empowered, grace-infused efforts to become more like Christ”. Yet there lie the remnants of sin. It manifests itself in laziness among other things.

He reminds us that work is a blessing, and part of our being made in the image of God. It is intended to give us joy, both earthly and eternal.

Image result for the dudeLaziness is a cancer-like sin. Laziness inhibits our spiritual growth & sanctification since it often keeps us from engaging in the dependent discipline necessary for growth to take place. Laziness keeps us from reading the Scripture so our minds are renewed and our lives therefore transformed. Laziness keeps us from prayer in which we engage with God and receive grace. There is a reason laziness, or sloth, is known as one of the seven deadly sins.

Rev. Kim thinks of his own country and church. He laments the lack of integrity of Korean people. He frames this in the context of national income per capita. He sees integrity and holiness as connected. Integrity is being who you say you are. Holiness is being who God says you are. As a Christian, you should say you are what God says you are, and live it. Both find their foundation in trust in God. Kim mentions that doing the right thing includes doing them at the right time.

As a result, Rev. Kim explores how laziness affects the witness of the Church. It also reduces our labors to the money we need to survive instead of the glory of God.

Christians, like other people, often have dreams. They dream of doing great things. As a kid I dreamed of athletic prowess. Dreams, however, are different than goals. Goals are used to accomplish dreams. Without them dreams are just that: dreams. The reason we don’t develop goals to make dreams a reality is laziness.

“A dream is a desire for something. But that is where dreams stop: with desire. A goal, on the other hand, is something that someone burns with passion for and thus strives devotedly to accomplish.”

He notes that laziness can be very busy, and look like diligence. But it is busy with the wrong things. We can tread water in life, but treading water is not to be confused with swimming.

Laziness is not contained to you. You don’t simply ruin your life. Often you ruin the life of those who depend upon you. Think about that for a minute, parents and employees. This is part of the danger of laziness. Perhaps you’ve had to rely on a lazy person as the project falls farther and farther behind schedule. Perhaps you’ve been the one who was fired because people relied on you and you sank the project.

“The influence of one person’s laziness is never neatly contained. It spills over into the lives of others.”

The second chapter, Robbed by a Thief, begins his meditations on the Proverbs. He begins with 22:13. He spends time setting up the context, interpreting and applying this and other proverbs.

IImage result for the break upn this he explores the balance between work and rest. He returns to the theme of self-love as the root of laziness. Like Gary in The Break-up, we say we just want to rest for 20 minutes watching our highlights before helping prepare or clean up dinner. There is always a reason not to help. Your desires are the only ones that matter. Laziness begins to destroy relationships.

“A promiscuous and decadent lifestyle is not merely the result of poor decisions: it is the natural outworking of the rejection of true love- biblical love- along with the direction and sacrifice such love requires.”

As you start to feel the weight of your laziness, and like all you are getting is law, Rev. Kim brings us back to the gospel. As a member of an honor culture, he does focus far more on the effects of laziness on others, particularly your family that most Americans would. He does emphasize discipline and more than many American Christians do. But he does bring us back to the gospel before we suffocate. He reminds us of God’s diligence in fulfilling His goals, including taking responsibility for His children. Grace shapes our discipline rather than substituting for our discipline.

In The Desire for and Development of Laziness Rev. Kim spends time on Proverbs 21:25. He introduces this with some background on the Chinese emperors decadence and excess, contrasted with the plight of the ordinary person. Our quest for “peace” is often like theirs, “a prelude for perversity, and perversity can be linked to laziness.” He rightly addresses the beastliness of laziness as a function of our depravity. Sinners are sensual and driven by desire like animals. For the Christian, laziness often means we don’t seek God diligently and remain spiritually weak and focused on our desires.

“Apart from communion with God, which is fostered by God’s grace but also demands our continual effort, our spiritual epiphanies dwindle and disappear.”

In the midst of this he discusses get rich quick schemes, which are born in laziness. He shifts into the progression of laziness: Not putting fort our best effort ==> abandoning duties and responsibilities ==> carnal passions. Laziness progresses in our lives unless fought diligently. It is the unrelenting downward pull of our flesh. Grace, and grace alone, can overcome this pull. Left to ourselves we drown in envy, discontentment and despair.

He then addresses the Carelessness of Laziness with a focus on Proverbs 24:30-31. He tells of a man who was careless in a public document that cost the company a large sum of money. They lost their job, and their supervisor was also disciplined. Laziness leads to neglecting details that can be costly.

In the midst of this, the translators use some Christianese. Instead of saying “zeal” they use the phrase “on fire”. It is one of my pet peeves. While concepts may be unfamiliar to non-Christians we should speak in understandable words and phrases. We want to stand out for our faith, not our odd use of language. We can be lazy in thinking about how we communicate.

The tendency of laziness to invent excuses is examined in The Way of a Hedge of Thorns (Proverbs 15:19). I thought of some of the people in my life that this applies to greatly. I am not immune, nor are any of us. Excuse-making can eventually cripple us spiritually. We often don’t make excuses in our worldly responsibilities, but do with our God-ward ones. We are busy for self, but lazy and excuse-making when it comes to seeking God and seeking to glorify and enjoy Him.

Having explored laziness and its harmful consequences, Rev. Kim moves to the second part of the book: Saying Goodbye to Your Close Friend. The mortification of sin can feel like that. You’ve gotten comfortable with certain sins, in this case laziness. Putting it to death is painful. You will miss it to some degree.

He begins with two chapters on Laziness and Sleep. Rest is a promise of God with the intended purpose of preparing us to work. Laziness separates work and rest, seeking rest and sleep as a good in itself, to be enjoyed well beyond our need for sleep. The Korean work ethic seems like over-kill to many of us in America or Europe. There needs to be some adjustment. Adam didn’t punch a time clock. In the Garden he would likely take time to enjoy a job well done, a beautiful scene or sunset, and perhaps an intimate moment with Eve. God is not like the Egyptian task-masters and Pharaohs.

In this section the translators note that “Korea follows more of an ‘eight to nine’ lifestyle- no one may leave until the boss leaves.” A hard working person in another culture may be considered lazy by their standards. And by our standards there are likely hard working people what are considered to be lazy. We all tend to make ourselves the measure of all.

He notes that medical conditions can produce the need for extra sleep. What is in his focus is the sleep of laziness that leads to poverty of spirit and wallet.

“There can be no coexistence of the gospel with laziness; we always choose to focus our attention on one or the other.”

He then explores the fact that Laziness Hates Passion from Proverbs 19:24. Our love of sleep and rest must be cast out by the power of a greater love. Laziness hates passion and embraces weak responses to important things. Laziness gives a half-hearted response and doesn’t see things through.

Image result for smoke in the eyesHe then confronts our Boredom. Diligence is not necessarily exciting. Completing projects tests our attention span. So, what happens when you grow bored of a task? He explores the difference between conviction and sheer stubbornness (which is born of laziness and pride).

He returns to the reality that The Sluggard Gives God Grief. Laziness is like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes. It is a constant source of irritation to others, including God. One of the sins Jesus died for is our laziness. The penalty of sloth, which seems so innocuous, is death. It grieved the Father to send the Son to die for laziness.

He then moves into ministry whether pastor, elder, deaconess (his inclusion). Our call is intended to shape our lives. We don’t fit it into a little corner of open space and hope we can fulfill our duties. We are called to make room to fulfill the duties of our call.

“We should consider the gravity of our call from God, whatever it is, and restructure and reorganize our priorities and lives in order to be faithful to that call. … The point is a very simple one: change so that you can serve; adapt and adjust so that you can live out God’s call on your life.”

He concludes with An Image Forever Burned into the Heart as he meditates on Proverbs 24:32-34. The author of this proverb had this image of a neglected field burned in his mind. He knew the circumstances of the owner. It was not illness of disability that kept that field in disrepair. There was no tragedy that produced this effect. This leads to some hard questions about the places in our lives suffering disrepair. Is that a result of laziness or tragedy that has befallen us. Often it is the result of choices we make.

FImage result for abandoned houseor instance, the last two years have seen an abundance of leaks in my irrigation at home. I could choose to let the water puddle in unproductive places each morning. I could choose to turn off the water and allow our plants and trees to die in the desert heat. I could choose to turn it off and water by hand and have less time to spend with God and my family when I’m home. I could choose to repair them when I have time on the weekend and enjoy a beautiful yard with my family and time with God. The more things we push back the more disrepair fills our lives until we are like a broken-down, abandoned house except there we are.

Rev. Kim is calling us to faith and repentance. The echo in the background is the creation mandate. The power to turn from our sluggishness and toward diligence is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is a needful book, though a hard book. It will expose the laziness in your life. It isn’t condemnatory, but is calling people to repentance due to the kindness of God. That is a book worth reading.

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I decided to read Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem by Robert Jones on my study leave. The battle with unrighteous anger or anger expressed unrighteously is never over. I was looking for more help in the struggle. I had high hopes for this book based on the blurbs by Jerry Bridges, Ken Sande, and Paul David Tripp among others.

Do you suspect where I’m going here?

While parts of the book were helpful, I was generally frustrated (angry) and disappointed with the book.

Why would I be angry with a book on anger? I’m hoping that’s not just how I roll.

I think Jones and I have different starting points, presuppositions, regarding anger that led me to find the book less helpful than I had hoped. Perhaps I’ve made my personal struggle into an idol that Jones failed to appease. I don’t know.

But it starts early in what I take as a series of inconsistencies rather than distinctions. On page 18 he notes that most references to anger are about God. This leads him to say “In one sense, God is both the most loving and the most angry person on our planet.” That I agree with precisely because God is love. Unlike Tim Keller (in his sermon The Healing of Anger), Jones does not connect the two. Anger is a response, says Keller, to what we love being threatened.

Jones’ definition is that anger is our “whole-personed active response of negative moral judgment against perceived evil” (pp. 15). On page 19 he applies that to God, leaving in “perceived”. God rightly knows good and evil, there is no perception at play in God’s anger. He follows up slightly to say that “God’s anger is his perfect, pure, settled opposition to evil.” But that he’d pedagogically begin with “perceived” bothers me. Perhaps I’m too concerned with guarding the character of God. I’m not sure. But this sort of theme will pop up from time to time.

He does say that “righteous human anger imitates God’s anger.” But then says little/none of our anger is righteous. His focus is on “sinful human anger”. Perhaps I’d have been less frustrated if I inserted that phrase into any subsequent mentioning of anger. For instance, when he says “Anger is unlike God.” on page 163. This unqualified statement (in its context) makes anger ungodly. I don’t believe that (and neither does he, I suspect).

Additionally, he doesn’t really work out the reality of the imago dei. God revealed Himself to Moses as “slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6) on Sinai in what is a frequently quoted/referenced self-revelation of God. God is not quick triggered or short-fused. He’s not no anger, but slow anger (a phrase Keller uses in the aforementioned sermon). But He does get angry.

Image result for hulk in avengers

“That’s my secret, Captain, I’m always angry.”

God is not ruled by His anger. Unlike us He doesn’t lose it and go into a Hulk-like rage (even though Hulk may be defending something he loves). His is a wise, good, righteous, balanced opposition to the evil at work. It’s not “shock and awe” for the sake of “feeling better”.

James reflects this reality in saying we are to be “slow to anger” in James 1:19. Because I’m made in the image of God, I am to be similarly slow to anger, not to have no anger. I’m not supposed to be like David Banner in the mountains practicing Zen meditation so I’m not angry. Anger serves a purpose, one that I as a sinner am prone to corrupt. This James notes in the next verse. My fallen anger doesn’t help me live righteously.

Here is the crux of my struggle with this book. I get the putting unrighteous anger to death. That really isn’t where I am (or at least think I am). I want help in being “slow to anger” and in applying the Psalmist’s and Paul’s instruction to “Be angry and do not sin”. (Jones does have an appendix on this passage which deals with this text briefly. I’ll say that the imperative being concessive doesn’t remove the point- anger is not inherently sinful but how we do it often is. He seems quite afraid of anger like some people are afraid of alcohol instead of drunkenness.)

Additionally, he seems to make a mistake some, like Jay Adams have made. In the attempt to push back against psychobabble and the ungodly attempt to avoid responsibility he appears to go too far. “We must not blame our family members, our societies, our genes, our parents, our church leaders, society, our hormones, or the devil for our anger.” (pp. 71) Instead we should own that anger as ours. Okay, we do need to own it. But this severely lacks nuance. We shouldn’t blame those people, but as we work through sin we recognize that the curse affects us spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially etc. These can be contributing factors and may be a reason for compassion in light of such sins that may have been perpetrated against us.

Later, he talks about one motive for putting our sinful anger to death: the model we present others. We don’t want to be a bad example to our kids or others. He notes the impact of having an angry friend, being an angry friend. But refuses to put any of this into the equation of counseling wisely to understand how sin operates in your life. I struggle with the part of the biblical counseling movement that follows Jay Adams in doing this. Sometimes the angry person is also the bruised reed and smoldering wick. Life is not frequently clear cut.

I can’t recall where in the early portions of the book, but he says that righteous anger is only that which is God-ward in focus. This means only when I’m viewing the evil as against God. With this I struggle as well. I should be angry when my kids disrespect my wife. They are sinning against her (and God). I don’t think I have to differentiate this in my mind each time I response. But I do have to make sure I’m not sinning in my anger towards them.

This book left me frustrated because I got the impression that ALL my anger was sinful. While he occasionally mentioned the gospel, I was left feeling hopeless in my struggle until Jesus returns. This is part of why I think this wasn’t the book I needed to read, it was not the right medicine for me. Now, I could be completely wrong and just need to repent like he kept telling me. But help me to know, in more than a paragraph, when my anger is a good thing even though I have to be careful regarding how I express it. In this regard, Good & Angry by David Powlison was a much better book.

The book does have good points to it. He does a good job in applying James 4 to our anger. Much of it is about our idols. In this regard he’s tracking with Powlison and Keller. He gets, as does Tripp and Powilson, into the distinction between God’s kingdom and ours and how that drives our anger. Righteous anger tends to be about God’s kingdom (more helpful than his earlier statements) and unrighteous anger tends to be about my kingdom being blocked. We do need to be asking these questions of ourselves regarding our anger. He makes good distinctions in dealing with revealed and concealed anger. But even here the table of contents (perhaps the work of the editor) has “sinful revealing” and “sinful concealing”. Not much is about how to righteously reveal or conceal anger.

One of my existential struggles is discerning in a particular instance whether my anger is about what I think is blocking God’s kingdom, or blocking my kingdom. The heart is deceitful. The lines are not always clear. Perhaps I was demanding he help me resolve this pertinent issue for me, and he didn’t.

He also addresses anger against God and ourselves well.

So, the book has merit. If you are looking for a book focused on identifying and putting your sinful anger to death, then this will be a good book. If you are looking for a book that will also help you express proper anger in helpful ways, then Powlison will be a better choice for you.

 

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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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I first heard of this book from Tim Challies’ blog. It piqued my interest. I thought it may prove a good resource when I preach through NT epistles.

This book is Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Matthew Rueger. Rueger is a Lutheran pastor who was asked to teach a lesson “on the other side” at a university class on ethics. The argument by cultural progressives is that Christianity is morally regressive. Rueger explodes this myth/fallacy by showing what the world was like before the Christian sexual ethic took root in the Roman Empire with the spread of the gospel. The sexual morals of societies before the spread of Christianity looks like where the progressives are trying to bring society. Rueger then moves to the present and discusses the current debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

“My desire in writing this book is to help Christians engage the world around them in reasoned discussion.”

In a sense this feels like two books at times- or perhaps three. There are historical sections, theological/expositional sections and then sociological sections. They all work together to build a compelling case.

In many ways this is not an easy read, or one that should be read by everybody. In particular, some may struggle with the early chapters discussing the sexual morality of Greece and Rome. It made me very glad I was not born in that time and place. People who have suffered similar victimization may be troubled by it. However, this is an excellent book to offset the views students are taught in public schools and centers for higher learning.

The first chapter is The Roman Context, which necessarily includes Greece too. At the time of Christ, much of the Roman Empire had once been part of the Greek Empire and Hellenized. There were not really differences of practice, but there were differences of rationale behind those behaviors.

He begins by noting that orientation is a “modern phenomenon” which seems to be lost on most conservatives. Orientation is slippery, in a sense, because some gay activists freely acknowledge that orientation is a concept of recent conception, and some would not agree with the way orientation is defined by the courts. They see orientation as fluid, while the courts have defined it as immutable (he notes Varnum v. Brien, Iowa 2009).

The ancients, therefore, including the early Christians “did not understand sexuality in terms of orientation.” For Greek culture, “sex was about the pursuit of beauty”, and they took it where they could get it. The ideal of beauty in their culture was young boys. In Roman culture, sex was tied to their idea of masculinity which was domination. Men were honored for dominating others sexually, and ridiculed if they were dominated sexually. It was an ethic very much like what we see in prisons today. This shaped their view of rape in the legal system. It was only rape if it involved a free Roman citizen. Slaves and non-citizens could be raped without consequence, particularly by free Roman citizens (talk about privilege!).

Greeks made no such distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Pederasty was common among Greeks and Romans, though there was some taboo in Rome where freeborn boys were concerned. Young male slaves were vulnerable. You were expected to take advantage of them.

“Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them.”

Marriage was not between equals. Male privilege ran rampant in these “progressive” cultures. Marriage was for status and heirs and the Empire, not love. Sexual pleasure was sought elsewhere. Seeking sex from a boy or man was viewed as a higher form of sexual relationship which included intellectual love.

He discusses the role of the gymnasium in Greek and Roman life. The word meant ‘naked’ for it was where the boys and young men exercised naked. One of the more popular sports was wrestling. Clothes, inhibitions and modesty were all shed together. Generally slaves were prohibited from entering the gymnasium. These teens were watched, and pursued, by older men in this environment.

Family life was twisted by their diminished view of women. Greek wives were virtually prisoners in their homes. They would leave for some religious rites, but that was about it. Roman wives had more rights and mobility. They could conduct trade. Since their “job” was to produce children for the Empire, women were often married once they were able to have children to maximize the child-bearing years due to infant mortality rates. For the population to grow, you needed to have at least 3 children survive to adulthood (it’s all about the Empire)so you needed to have at least 6 children. Expectations were different for the wealthy (you can’t have too many elites), and infanticide was a problem in Rome.

Husbands had rights over their wives, but not wives over her husband. He was free to sow his oats outside of the marriage. She was not. If caught, she and her male partner could be prosecuted (assuming the husband was a free man with means). In keeping with the twisted view of sexuality in Rome, the husband could “rape the male offender and then, if he desired, to kill his wife.” This was a brutal and depraved society.

Image result for escherIt was a world of promiscuity and perversion into which the gospel of Jesus Christ was first preached. Paul called it a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15). The Gentiles who converted came from a background of pornography, prostitution (including temple prostitutes), homosexuality/bisexuality, and rape. Like those around them, they had been given over to their disordered desires. The Gospel called people out of this perverse way of life, confronting the sexual mores of Rome.

Rueger then addresses the Jewish Context, which should not be assumed to be the same as the Christian viewpoint because it wasn’t. Judaism did not permit homosexuality like the Gentiles did. It prohibited prostitution. It did, however, permit polygamy and concubines. There was also a double standard concerning adultery. Wives were to produce heirs.

The sexual abuse of children was considered punishable. But it was merely a fine in the Mishnah. Generally, Jewish culture was less perverse than Greek and Roman cultures. But we see it was still warped by sin. The Gospel and subsequent definition of holy living would confront aspect of Jewish sexuality and marriage as well.

“We live in a culture that has a vested interest in misinterpreting the passages about sex and morality.”

He then moves into the expositional section of the book. Rueger looks at particular passages that are central to these discussions. He discusses context, briefly, to help people understand how to interpret texts. He includes some passages about marriage to indicate the equal rights and responsibilities of spouses in sexual matters. He then moves into sexual immorality and homosexual sex. In 1 Corinthians he notes the two words used for homosexual activity which indicate both the penetrator and penetrated are guilty of breaking God’s Law, which is quite contrary to Roman ethics.

“It should be noticed that Paul does not treat homosexual sins differently than heterosexual sins when it comes to the application of Law and Gospel. Both are addressed side by side as equally contrary to God’s Law and both are spoken of as equally forgivable.”

He then moves to the present with “Mom, Dad, I’m Gay”. As a Lutheran pastor, he applies Law and Gospel to this situation. He also challenges the basis for those who challenge traditional/biblical teachings on homosexuality. In our culture, objectivity is laid aside and subjectivity is embraced. He discusses the many reasons why someone could be homosexual.

“It is important for us as Christians to understand that not all homosexuality is the same. … Christians do a great disservice to those who seek Christ’s grace and mercy by lumping all same-sec attracted people into one group.”

In that application of Law and Gospel, he draws a big distinction between those who seek to normalize homosexuality and those who believe it is wrong and struggle with their same sex desires (as well as other sexual sins). The former need the Law to convict them of sin, and the latter need to Gospel for forgiveness and sanctification. Too often I hear Christians speak of people struggling with same sex desire as one big group, as if they are all activists. There is a quiet majority (?) of those who are conflicted in themselves between what they experience and what they believe is right.

Additionally, the Church needs to remember that heterosexual desire also creates sinful desires (such as for adultery, fornication, pornography, polygamy etc.). I’ve had pastors say to me that it is different because same-sex attraction is unnatural. But we need to put those desires to sin to death because they are just as deadly & dangerous, just as sinful, as same-sex desires. Until we do that, we will treat them as lepers.

He stresses the role of the Church as making the pardoning and purifying grace of Jesus Christ known to its members who struggle with these desires. Being Lutheran, he stresses the sacraments. As a Reformed Christian, I hold a high view of the sacraments and their being means of grace. But not as high as Lutherans. He seems to disconnect their efficacy from faith. But the Table is a place to bring disordered desires of all kinds to Jesus and receive His help through our union with Him.

“Temptation is not the same as sin. Temptations play on those elements of our inner being that have a weakness for a certain sin, but in and of themselves temptations are not sins.”

He moves into an area of debate among even conservative Christians. He distinguishes temptation from sin. His statements are similar to those of Nancy Pearcey, Rosaria Butterfield and others (though Rosaria then seems to put homosexual temptation in a separate category in the next paragraph). The gospel does teach us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness, which means we are mortifying our temptations. As Christians our temptations, while real and present, should not define us. He includes three paragraphs from Luther’s Larger Catechism in which Luther differentiates temptation and sin. Luther further distinguishes temptation from desire (or what we call lust), in which we are entertaining or giving way to temptation rather than mortifying it, but have not yet committed the act in question. This is likely what Owen means in his phrase “entering into temptation.” I find this a helpful distinction.

Tempted? Mortify it! Lusting? Mortify it and repent! Done it? Repent!

“Christians are not less sinful than non-Christians, but they do have a Savior who both forgives sins and fights within them against the temptations in their path.”

He returns to the question of orientation. It usually refers to the idea that sexuality and attraction are essential elements of a person resulting from their individual biology which cannot be changed. This “immutability” is an accident of their birth. This is how the courts have spoken about this. As Rueger notes, real life is not some simple. For some people, “orientation” or attraction is more fluid. They shift between heterosexual and homosexual at points in life (as opposed to bisexuality). The claims of the courts, and activists, don’t fit reality. Instead of orientation, he advocates talking about sexual identity or gender preference. These leave room for the gospel to be at work, while the language of orientation is misleading and fatalistic.

Rueger then addresses “A Mixed Bag of Objections”. He brings up objections to the Christian understanding of homosexuality and refutes them. We see objections like “inconsistency in applying the law” to which he responds with the three divisions of the law. He brings up racial prejudice and slavery, genetics and brain studies, and twin studies. He explores them, affirms where there are real concerns (Christians have been guilty of prejudice and advocated for and against race-based slavery rooted in man-stealing). He examines those studies and mentions other studies that sought to correct methodological flaws.

The next chapter focuses on same-sex marriage. He builds a case against it from natural law and reason since most people (especially the courts) aren’t concerned about what Scripture says. He brings up studies indicating that children thrive to a greater extent with two parents of the opposite sex. They do better in school and get into less trouble with the law. Where traditional marriage decays (including through divorce and never-married parents), state funding to support children increases greatly. He recognizes the limits of these arguments. Most people, while appealing to reason, often don’t listen to it. Their hearts want what their hearts want. Only God, by His Spirit can change that.

“Sexual promiscuity leaves a trail of broken people and regret. It also tends to go hand in hand with an attitude that sees people as objects for one’s own sexual gratification and not as beings worthy of committed love.”

This was a very helpful book. It is not a long book. Rueger is generally succinct and gets to the point. He does make a number of good and necessary distinctions which often trip up discussions by their absence. This would be a helpful book for pastors, youth workers, teachers, parents and students facing pressure to conform to worldly standards.

To return to his thesis: Christianity is not affirming regressive sexual mores, but continues to call people out of the regressive sexuality that results in rampant promiscuity, sexual abuse and assault, societal instability and misogyny.

 

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We seem to be “good” at judging other people’s spiritual status. And pretty lousy at judging our own.

I think of some of the comments I see by Christians.

“President Trump can’t be a Christian because ….”. (I don’t know if Trump is actually a Christian, but that’s because I don’t know what he actually believes and whether it is orthodox).

“People who commit such & such a sin can’t be Christians.” These are usually grievous sins, but still.

We often do this to ourselves. “How can I be a Christian? I looked at porn/committed adultery/embezzled from work or church etc..” We lack assurance because we’ve begun to shift of confidence from Christ and His perfect righteousness to our own very imperfect righteousness.

I’m currently re-reading A Guide to Christian Living by John Calvin. It is taken from the 1544 edition of the Institutes. Chapter 1 is the Scriptural Foundations for Christian Living. In section 5, Perfection Should Be Our Aim,  Calvin addresses the progress or seemingly lack of progress ordinary Christians experience.

“I do not insist that evangelical perfection be attained before anyone can be regarded as a Christian. That would be too strict and severe a test. On that basis every living soul would be excluded from the church, for there is no one, whatever progress he has made, who does not come well short of the mark. Most people indeed have hardly advanced one step, yet they are not to be rejected on that account.”

Calvin argues against perfectionism here. It is not the claim of perfectionism, but the demand of perfectionism in view. While we must be clear about sin and the need for repentance, our standard for fellowship with others and their admittance into the church is not their performance but Christ.

TImage result for Christian Loveoday I was also reading Hugh Binning on Christian Love. He notes that we are not to see other Christians as they are with all their sins staining their clothes, but as stripped and clothed in Christ and His perfect righteousness by virtue of their union with Christ.

Returning to Calvin, he notes that even the best of Christians would be prohibited from membership. Not only does he say we are short of the mark, but well short of the mark. Not even close. Not a kick that bounces off the goal post, but WIDE right. And short.

Our progress in sanctification is slim. But you are not to think that you or your professing friend or neighbor isn’t a Christian because they committed a sin, or the same sin 490 times.

Sin is stubborn like that. It is deep down within us and not solved by resolutions or 7 steps (or 12). Our hope for freedom from sin is tied to the consummation, not conversion.

“What then? Our sights should be naturally set on the perfection which God commands. That should be the yardstick by which we measure all our actions, and that should be the goal for which we strive.”

Calvin is not a practical or theoretical antinomian. He’s not rejecting the law or its use for us. It is not used for our justification, or to admit people in the church. It continues to reveal sin to us, and in us. It continues to show us what Christ-likeness is like. It still has a role in the life of a Christian.

“But as long as we live in this earthly prison, none of us is strong or keen enough to hurry on as briskly as we ought. Most of us are so weak and feeble that we shuffle and stumble along, making little headway as we go.”

Union with Christ doesn’t make us uber-Christians. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. He sin daily in thought, word and deed. Sin easily entangles us (Heb. 12), so we all stumble in many ways (James 3). Habitual sins (those connected with a lifestyle or called addictions) don’t go away easily or quickly. Change is often incremental. There can be 3 steps forward and 1 or 2 back. “Little headway” he says. Do we say that? Do we act towards others as if he’s right?

Calvin encourages us to keep walking the path. Don’t give up because we sinned, again. Keep your eyes, he says, focused on the goal.

One key aspect we should not forget in the midst of this. “… not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.” Real Christians admit their sinfulness. They own their faults and want to be free. They are not using grace as license. They struggle, they fight and sometimes they lose. The point is that they are in the game.

There are some who shouldn’t be admitted to the church, or should be removed from the church. Those are sinners who don’t care about their sin. They are not repentant but blame-shifting, excusing and enjoying their sin(s). They are the ones who are antinomian by theory or practice.

Real Christians confess their sins as sins. Real Christians look to Christ’s blood and righteousness for their acceptance with the Father. They know we are never more or less united to Christ and therefore never more or less God’s son. But they also know that communion can increase and decrease. The Father does discipline us, as sons, when we are careless about sin. He’s concerned about our future faith & practice, not about punishing us.

Calvin is encouraging us to be kind to ourselves, and other sinners who profess faith. Repentant, they need encouragement so they stay on the path. We need to remember that while our sins may be different and less spectacular, we too fall far short of the mark ourselves. And that is normal.

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Sometimes you come across a book that looks like it will address the big questions you’ve been churning over in your mind for years. When you read it you are disappointed because it barely addresses those questions. This can happen more frequently in the age of internet shopping. But it is quite frustrating as you invest time in a book that doesn’t scratch the itch you have.

Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is one of those books for me. Based on the subtitle I thought it would focus on the profound ways we have been sinned against. Indeed, Chris Brauns does include a number of stories about such profound sins. But I found a disconnect between those stories and the content he presented. So while there was some good material here, it didn’t really help me in the issues I was looking for help personally and professionally.

In his introduction he claims to address “where I’m coming from”. This is not so much about his presuppositions (more in a moment) but the questions he will address, such as: should we forgive God, does God forgive everyone, and should we forgive everyone?

He does lay out one presupposition: “only God’s Word can unpack forgiveness”, a proper commitment to sola Scriptura. He then says “unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family.” Unpacking takes a lot longer than the actual event of moving. He mentions that 2 years after a move, his family was still unpacking. This is what I was hoping he’d address but really didn’t as I’d hoped. And some of what he said hindered this process, at least as I understand it.

I was struck at the two main presuppositions he didn’t address which shape so much about forgiveness. He never defined his understanding of sin. He assumes we all know. He doesn’t use this term often, preferring the terms derived from the verb “to offend”. While sin rightfully offends, we often use that term (which he doesn’t define either) in many ways no connected to sin. It often has psychological (for lack of a better term) uses, and he generally distances himself from other psychological concepts. This focus on “offense” is a more subjective understanding of sin, not an largely objective one. For instance he says “we have all offended his standard” (pp. 45) with regard to Romans 3:23 (I assume since he doesn’t note it). This is a great time to clarify that “sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” Look, was that difficult? No. But he assumes the reader has a definition of sin, and that it is the same as his unexpressed one.

The other big presupposition was the nature and extent of the atonement. He quotes a few Calvinistic and Reformed guys (he mentions Piper frequently), but how he speaks about forgiveness points to a general atonement in which salvation is possible but not actually procured. I could be wrong about what he actually believes, which is the point: he doesn’t actually express it. (To be fair, he defines ‘propitiation’ on pp. 46.)

Granted, you can’t say everything about everything when you write a book, but these seem to be significant issues that affect much of what you say on this topic. I’m not “heresy hunting” but noticing large gaps in his reasoning.

At times his vagueness affects how he interacts with Scripture. I have notes written in the margins in numerous places questioning how he understands particular texts.

He interacts with Lewis Smedes on the topic of “mandatory forgiveness”, representing a less than biblical view of forgiveness. But he doesn’t interact with anyone else on significant issues. I would have liked him to interact with Dan Allender’s material in Bold Love, as an example. His work regarding forgiveness is different than Brauns’ (and Smedes’). Such interaction would have helped clarify a few things in his book that I still have questions about regarding his perspective.

The main premise of the book is that “we forgive as God forgave us.” He doesn’t simply take this as forgive because we’ve been forgiven, or even in a similar way, but rather “in the same way.” He rightfully notes the graciousness of God’s forgiveness, and the costliness to God in the atonement of Christ. He properly notes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us in justification. He notes the connection of forgiveness with reconciliation (they are not identical). He also notes that forgiveness does not remove all earthly consequences which in Christ have been transformed from punishment to training in righteousness. But I struggle with his definition of forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness: a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.”

So, for you to forgive is an identical commitment to those who repent.

Take a moment though to insert that definition into a passage in the place of forgiveness. Passages like these:

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,Luke 1

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, …. Ephesians 1 cf. Colossians 1:14

In this way, he goes beyond the simple meaning or use of the term forgiveness (which he mentions) as release from a debt to this more complex idea. We therefore offer people forgiveness, but they must repent in order for us to actually forgive them. We have an “attitude” of forgiveness toward them.

So, while he therefore says we don’t need to “forgive” everyone he never gets to what I think is a core issue based on the doctrine of sin. I don’t forgive people unless they sin, thereby incurring a debt, against me. I can’t forgive Timothy McVeigh, whom he mentions repeatedly in this context, for instance because he didn’t sin against me except in the most vague way since I’m an American. I can feel outrage, but that is the problem: I’m carrying an indirect burden since he didn’t take anything away from me. His treatment of this issue, in my opinion, is quite superficial and unhelpful.

Let’s apply this to an unknown rapist whose repentance a victim may never know about. She has an attitude of forgiveness, and a “gift” she doesn’t know where to send. This is where it breaks down for me. Theology is all about distinctions, and there are a number of big ones he doesn’t make. The “gift” makes sense in understanding my personal relationships. But not with regard to profound sins in which there is no personal relationship (for instance with an uncle who physically abuses the victim).

Another important distinction that is never spelled out (or I missed it if he did) was that just because I forgive someone doesn’t mean God does. He seems to imply at points in his argument against automatic or mandatory forgiveness that God does because I do. Not only may there be state sanctions (though he has conflicting statements on this too), there may be divine sanctions that remain.

Let me illustrate: there is a family member who sinned against me profoundly (it was not a crime so there would be no legal sanctions), in a way that still haunts me to this day. That person can’t really face it, or understand it. For an extended period of time I was very angry with them. Despite their lack of repentance I forgave them. I didn’t just have an attitude of forgiveness, but forgave their debt to me. I am reconciled with them despite this sin and their lack of repentance. This doesn’t mean God forgave them or is reconciled with them (by all appearances He has not). I chose to no longer hold this debt against them, and even restore relationship with them despite this profound debt.

He missed another important distinction in his chapter about when you can’t stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about it? Is the source Satan to continually put up walls between you, to get you to be bitter or feel false condemnation, shame etc.? Or is the source God to help you deepen your forgiveness of the other person? This, in my opinion, matters. But he never mentions the latter possibility.

What I mean is this (which I hoped the book would be about or address): at times we come to a deeper understanding of the debt incurred. Something we thought was a $50 debt is really a $1,000 debt. For instance, I minimized that debt a family member incurred. I needed to face what I really needed to forgive. Ultimately God intended that process for good, even as Satan intended it for evil (to trap me in bitterness). THIS is real pastoral theology, not the superficial approach he presented that we shouldn’t think about it if we’ve forgiven. But what have we forgiven? Have we forgiven the debt as much as we can understand it?

A question he doesn’t really answer is that though forgiveness is often the basis of reconciliation, must I reconcile with someone because I have forgiven them? A rape or abuse victim should forgive the person who sinned against them. Perhaps the person has even repented. Must you be reconciled to them? Have them over for dinner? Leave your kids with them? No!! Forgiveness does not mean that the person is suddenly trustworthy, or that you trust them with your life. It just means you no longer want your pound of flesh, for the debt to be repaid. It doesn’t mean you have to loan out more money.

There was also somewhat of an internal conflict in the book. He thinks we should only forgive if the other person repents. That was not the intention of Jesus’ answer to the question. It was not what must they do for me to forgive them, but if they repent must I forgive them. Very different question, and to distort that distorts the answer. As long as someone repents, I must forgive them. But it doesn’t mean I must wait until they repent to forgive, which is what Brauns says at points.

Later in the book he notes we can overlook an offense. But they didn’t repent. Unlike Ken Sande, whom he references at times, there is no real process for sorting out when I should just overlook an offense or sin. Sometimes even Braun, despite his previous statements, means they don’t have to repent for you to forgive them.

This book does present some good material that may be helpful to a number of people. He is closer to the biblical understanding of forgiveness than Smedes. But there are some holes in the foundation, gaps he didn’t address or distinctions he failed to make that prove unhelpful for others. For instance, my sister-in-law found the book helpful. Okay. I don’t think she’s deceived or stupid. It helped her and that is GOOD. I didn’t find it as helpful. That could be a function of my understanding of theological complexities which differs from hers necessarily as a pastor, and/or the ways I have been sinned against that she has not. I still find Allender’s work more helpful for me. If you are more like my sister-in-law you may legitimately find this book helpful. If you are more like me, you may not find this book helpful for equally legitimate reasons.

 

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