Category Archives: Theology

Falling Off the Precipice: A Brave Easter

Unknown-1I’ve been reading David Brooks’ book The Road to Character. The book seeks the develop what Brooks calls the Adam II part of us. The Adam II part of us is “the internal Adam,” the part of us that wants “to embody certain moral qualities” (xii). Brooks believes that, as a society, we have failed to make the development of the Adam II part of us a priory. He challenges us to make it a priority by examining the biographical narrative and inner character of people throughout history. People like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Eliot and Augustine.

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In his chapter on Augustine, brooks crafts a sentence that, if you are follower of Jesus, immediately forces you to take an account of your own life. In telling the story of Augustine’s conversion journey from a life of worldly but unfulfilling success to one of Christian faith and service, Brooks says Augustine “hung on an emotional precipice between a religious life he was afraid to sacrifice for and a secular life he detested but would not renounce.” 201

The picture Brooks’ thought creates is vivid. And I believe most of us stand exactly where Augustine stood. We stand on the precipice, the edge, having come too far to go back but unable to fully let go and jump.

So we stand, afraid to let go. Afraid to commit. Afraid of what it’ll look like to others. Afraid of the reality that when both feet leave the edge there’s no going back.

But that’s exactly what God calls those that want to follow him to do: jump. Commit. Let go. Surrender.

This isn’t Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” rather it is the decision to choose the things of God wholly, fully and completely and let go of (renounce) the things that appear to give security but are ultimately unfulfilling.

But just like Augustine, we are afraid to wholly, fully and completely choose the things of God because of the sacrifice that choice requires. We find that we are much more like the “rich young ruler” than Zaccheus- we just can’t bring ourselves to the sacrifice required.

What is it that God requires from us? What are the sacrifices we are afraid to make? There are different things for each individual. But there are sacrifices God calls all his followers to: love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and sacrificial love of neighbor.

If we desire to wholly, fully and completely choose the things of God, how can we do it? How can we be sure that the sacrifice will be worth it? In one sense we have to take it on faith. In another, however, we have the ultimate confidence that we are able to completely choose the things of God and do so confidently because of the resurrection of Jesus. In the Resurrection, we behold the ultimate proof that God’s word is true and that God’s word is powerful. It is the Resurrection that allows us to wholly, fully, completely and bravely choose the things of God and let go of the old life. In the Resurrection, God, through Jesus, defeated all enemies and gave all power, authority and dominion to Jesus.

If Jesus has everything, where is our hesitation to commit wholly, fully and completely to Jesus? One answers is that we continually choose lesser loves over the one great love that we find in Jesus. Holy Week invites us to fix our attention on the great love of God, the love that gave Jesus over to death on a cross. It invites us to re-commit ourselves wholly, fully and completely to the things of God and renounce the old life that we detest but somehow always entices us.

The challenge is for you and I to enter into God’s invitation and to choose that whatever sacrifice is asked of us, we have the bravery to embrace it because of the Resurrection.

 

-Bibliography

Brooks, David. The Road to Character. Random House. 2015.

Apply to Amaze: Theological Vision

We’ve been talking about the words of Jesus and if we are still amazed by them- as the crowds in the gospels were when they heard the words and message of Jesus. I ended the last post with a series of questions and I want to address two of them here:

Would those around us, if they heard the words of Jesus, be amazed?

If those around us are not amazed at Jesus’ words, why?

When it comes to the words of Jesus, a majority of those around us fall into one (or more than one) of three categories. First, they simply don’t know anything that Jesus said. Second, they don’t care to know anything that Jesus said. Third, they have the wrong idea of what Jesus said.

A brand new study released by the Pew Research Center surveyed 35,000 Americans over the course of seven years. They found that over the seven year time period, the number of Americans who said that religion was “not at all” important to their life grew by 5.3%. The study also found that those who classify as “religiously unaffiliated” grew by 6.7% (from 16.1% of those surveyed to 22.8%). [Here are links to two articles on the Pew study: one from NPR and one from Christianity Today.]

Another recent survey conducted by the Church of England found that 25% of those ages 18-34 believe that Jesus is purely a “mythical or fictional character.”

These studies show the growth of people in each of the three categories we mentioned a moment ago. Seeing that reality, how do we engage people with the word and message of Jesus? And engage them in such a way that they come away amazed?

In trying to answer these questions, there are two different directions we can go. Either we can say that what we need is more evangelism; we need more people telling more people Jesus’ message. The logic goes like this, “If people don’t know what Jesus said, we need to go and tell them what Jesus said- whether they like it or not, whether they are ready or not.” I’m purposely taking a cynical view of evangelism because I think that this is how it comes across to those people around us.

The other direction we can go is application. This is the direction that I believe we need to travel. If those around us either don’t know what Jesus said, don’t care what Jesus said or have the wrong idea of what Jesus said, instead of approaching with a list of things Jesus said, we need to be able to show the effects of Jesus’ words within our own lives.

This direction makes sense and it’s what we do in other aspects of our lives. If I buy a new TV and I am trying to convince you to buy the same TV, I could read the owners manual to you or I could show you the TV. That’s the difference between purely evangelism in the manner we have historically done it and showing people the effects of Jesus in application.

The problem is that most of us don’t know how to apply the words and message of Jesus into our lives. I’ve become convinced that application is the most important aspect when we come to the study of Scripture. I’ve also become convinced that application consists of more than simply what to do in Situation A or Circumstance B. Application must consist, in the words of Timothy Keller, of theological vision. Keller defines theological vision as “a vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” He goes on to elaborate,

We must discern where and how the culture can be challenged and affirmed…Those who are empowered by the theological vision do not simply stand against the mainstream impulses of the culture but take the initiative both to understand and speak to that culture from the framework of the Scriptures…The modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed…So what is a theological vision? It is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich impulses for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history. (Center Church, 18-19). 

Changing our idea of application from what to do in Situation A or Circumstance B to a theological vision for the culture we are in takes way more work than brainstorming a few examples of common problems. It takes work to see culture, understand culture and see how Scripture speaks into the culture so that the culture can be transformed.

The Pew study shows that 46.1% of Americans see religion as “somewhat” or “not at all” important in their life, the way we can re-engage them in spiritual things is to apply to amaze. Apply the message of Jesus in such a way that those around us who don’t know what Jesus said, don’t care what Jesus said or have the wrong idea of what Jesus said are amazed to the point where they have a desire to know the words of Jesus for themselves.

 

Avenues of Grace

Genesis.

Eve listens to the words of the serpent and she and Adam sin against God. God judges them and kicks Adam and Eve out of the Garden.

Cain is jealous of Abel’s offering to God and murders him. God judges Cain and causes him to be a wanderer on the earth.

The whole earth is filled with violence. God decides to cover the earth with a flood and kill every living creature.

Mankind wants to make a name for themselves and begin to build a tower to reach heaven. God sees their actions and scatters them across the earth.


Genesis.

God provides clothing and a new home for Adam and Eve.

God provides a mark of protection for Cain.

God provides an escape from the flood to Noah and his family through the ark.

In the midst of God scattering the people of the earth, God calls out Abram.


These are some of the biblical narratives we’ve been examining in our current small group study. In our discussion, one person suggested that in these narratives God seems to be weeding out people until God finds those who will believe through faith. I can see how someone might be able to extract that from the narratives but I see God doing something else.

Instead of God closing the door on people, God seems to be opening the door for them to come in. At the very least God is allowing the door to remain open when there is every reason to close it. In other words, what we see in each of these narratives is God’s grace. In the midst of each of mankind’s mistakes and coupled with God’s discipline is God’s grace.

Grace that doesn’t shut people out from God but provides a way for people to come to God. Grace that provides for needs. Grace that protects. Grace that saves. Grace that establishes a people called by God.

We see God’s grace in the midst of judgment so often in Scripture that I think we can safely say that God always provides an avenue for grace. If this was not true, how could Paul writes that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20)?

As we look around in our world, we can become overwhelmed by the amount of rebellion we see against God. We might even be amazed at the creativity in the means by which we see rebellion against God occurring around us. What are we to do?

Instead of being overwhelmed by the sins we see in the world, we should be amazed at the avenues of grace that we see. It takes a flip of our perspective.

What rebellion against God do you see around you? How can that become an avenue of grace?

“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, as that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 5:20-21.

Sermon or Sound Bite? Let’s Talk About the Kingdom: Part 2

This blog series is about the kingdom, so let’s talk about the kingdom. In Part 1, I argued that the way in which we view the world actually tells us a lot about the way we view the kingdom of God and our role within it. If we look at the world through pessimism or evilism (a word I created) and if we look at ourselves as guerrilla warrior against an evil establishment rather than ambassadors for the king, then we really don’t believe that Jesus is king right here and right now. What is unmistakable in Scripture is the belief that Jesus is, in fact, king right here and right now.

This leads us to the question of this post: how do we talk about our king? As ambassadors of the king, how do we herald the message of the kingdom?

I once heard a business man say that every business and sales man or woman needs to have a fifteen second speech ready at all times so that in the time it takes to get one floor on an elevator, one can make a concise and clear pitch. As followers of Jesus, are we able to do the same thing? Can we give a concise and clear kingdom message in fifteen seconds? What would we say?


How do we herald the message of the kingdom?


In a sermon series from June 2014, Andy Stanley asked a similar question and he proposed a response: “I believe Jesus died for my sin and rose from the dead, but  not because the Bible says so. I believe because Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James and Paul said so. They were eyewitnesses and friends of eyewitnesses.” This response would work in certain settings, however, it requires the recipient to have a basic knowledge of the Bible and Christian belief. They would have to know who Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are, for example. Additionally, outside of mentioning Jesus dying for my sins, it does not mention what it means for the hearer or for the world. And, to be fair, the question Andy Stanley was addressing was “How can you believe…” instead of “What do you believe…?”

When you and I try to answer the “What do you believe?” question, the response can easy become unwieldy. Do we start with God? Creation? Jesus? Sin? Our own story? From there do we talk about forgiveness, faith or justification? How do we end? It’s easy to see how the person who asked the question could end up getting a sermon they have to wade through and not a sound bite that they can remember and think about.


Sermon or sound bite?


I don’t think there is a single answer that works for everyone in every circumstance but as I have thought about this all week, I think I have developed an answer that works for me (and it was surprisingly hard).

You’re a Christian, what do you believe? I believe a perfect God made a perfect world; human beings became prideful and greedy and broke our relationship with God but God sent Jesus to show us what God is like, what the world was supposed to be like and to make a way for us to have a relationship with God again.

That is about an fifteen second answer. It may not be perfect but it tells the problem and the solution, it’s easy to remember and it leaves room for follow up questions.

Now it’s your turn. What is your fifteen second kingdom message?

 

A Millennial on Why the Atonement is Still Important: A Response to Christian Piatt

imagesRecently another tidal wave of atonement wariness has swept through the Christian village. It has been subtle at times. It has even been constructive at times- seeking to reframe the atonement for a postmodern audience. It has also been blatant at times, and none so blatant as a recent article by Christian Piatt.

In his April 28, 2015 article entitled, “Is a Theology of Atonement a Ponzi Scheme that Enslaves Us to God?”, Piatt writes: “Aside from atonement theology (the idea that Jesus’ death paid a debt to God I could not repay myself) painting God as a bloodthirsty bully, it also raises the question of whether personal salvation based on this atonement principle is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever sold from the pulpit.”

He then goes on to show how this Ponzi scheme works; essentially arguing that the job of a person who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior is to “work for this deferred compensation [freedom from eternal suffering in hell] for the rest of your life. And chief among your jobs is to sell other people on this same deal so they can be covered under this sin umbrella policy, and then recruit others to do the same and so on…”

Piatt’s main problem with this is it makes Christians “act fundamentally un-Christ-like,” “act like jerks to everyone else,” live a life that is “fairly indistinguishable from indentured servitude” while “screwing” anyone who doesn’t “sign on” to this way. He closes the article by describing the way he sees God, or at least desires God to be. He writes: “If we believe in a God of unconditional love and grace, however, it seems we have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to also believe that we have to proclaim that Jesus paid our debt, or else no deal.” He says if God’s love is unconditional, then it cannot be based on any kind of deal or preference and since Jesus sought to erase the idea of insiders versus outsiders, the theology of atonement “paints God as particularly un-Christ-like.” Finally he puts it all out, “Personally, I choose to believe in a God that really offers love and grace freely, and that would not set up a man the likes of Jesus to be tortured and killed.”

As a Millennial (I was born in 1985) and as someone who classifies myself as either moderate or progressive on many theological issues, this post is not an attack on progressive Christians or liberal Christians, rather it is me standing as a young Millenial Christian to say that the atonement, for all the discomfort it causes our modern/postmodern minds, is still important. If we take the theology of atonement away, we aren’t left with Christianity- in fact we aren’t left with anything at all.

Without the atonement, we cannot use Scripture as a means to know and understand God. Piatt writes that atonement theology is un-Christ-like and that the God he chooses to believe in could not act in such a way, if that is true then the Scriptures are useless because from the Old Testament to the New Testament God’s character is seen through atonement. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Law because without the atonement we cannot say that anything someone does is wrong. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Prophets because there can be no reason or means to hold someone accountable for their behavior. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Psalms, because one of the underlying beliefs of the Psalms is the understanding that God judges wrong doing. Without the atonement we can throw out the Tabernacle and Temple. Without the atonement, we can throw out the gospels because they show Jesus as embodying God’s atonement. Finally, we can throw out Acts and the Epistles because they elaborate on the ‘Jesus is God’s final atonement’ idea. Once we take the atonement out of Scripture, we actually aren’t left with any Scripture at all.

Piatt’s other main point, namely that God’s love and grace can exist apart from the atonement, also causes some major problems. If you are able to keep Scripture, despite its atonement foundation, it’s hard to circumnavigate that Scripture links God’s love and God’s grace to the atonement. Texts like Romans 5:8-10, 1 John 4:9-10 and Galatians 2:20 all link God’s love to atonement in and through Jesus’ death. Likewise, God’s grace is linked to the atonement. Texts like Ephesians 1:7, Romans 3:21-26 and all of Romans chapter 5 show that God’s grace is shown and given through the atonement. To say that we believe in a God of love and grace and yet deny the atonement is like standing before a fireplace and affirming the existence of light and warmth but denying the existence of the fire.

The questions of how the atonement works and why Jesus had to die have existed within Christianity since its inception. Theologians through the centuries have proposed various ways to understand the atonement- ransom, satisfaction, moral influence, penal substitution, Christus Victor. Despite the questions of how and why, the Christian faith is the belief that the atonement works and that the atonement remains God’s means through which love, grace, mercy, redemption, forgiveness and salvation come. With its questions and with our uneasiness in aspects of the atonement, it remains the central and vital component of the Christian faith. Without the atonement, we cannot know God though Scripture and we cannot believe in a God of love and grace. That is why the atonement is still important.

 

Reclaiming Easter

"Resurrection of Christ" by Marco Basaiti, 1520

“Resurrection of Christ” by Marco Basaiti, 1520

I concluded my last post with the statement, “Easter shouldn’t sneak up on us and it shouldn’t be merely another day. It should be the highlight of our calendar year and the celebration of our whole lives.”

That is a statement that I truly believe and I truly believe it to be true. I find it telling that last week’s post got dramatically fewer hits than post in the previous weeks. It appears as if Easter really doesn’t mean much to us. How can we change that? How can we reclaim Easter?  I’ll suggest a few ideas.

1. We need the ability to explain what the Easter holiday means. I would guess that a majority of the people we are around everyday do not know what Easter means or why some public schools don’t have classes the Friday before Easter. I would also guess that a majority of Christians wouldn’t feel comfortable in trying to explain what Easter means. We need the ability to explain what Easter means and what it means to us.

2. We need a better theological understanding of what Easter means. The reason, I believe, that a majority of Christians wouldn’t feel comfortable explaining the meaning of Easter is because words and concepts like “resurrection” and “atonement” don’t come up in ordinary, daily conversation. And, as a whole, our churches have done a poor job of equipping Christians with a theological understanding vital concepts like “redemption,” “justification,” “atonement,” and “resurrection.”

3. We need theologians who will explore new ways in which the Resurrection impact and influences the life and the world in which we live. What does the Resurrection mean for the new racial tension in our country? How does the Resurrection influence social causes? What does it means for our finances, our families, our vocations? We need to explore these afresh.

4. Make every Sunday about the Resurrection. The reason the Christian Church meets together on Sunday (the first day of the week) is because that is the day Jesus rose from the dead. Every Sunday should be a reminder and a celebration of the Resurrection.

5. Finally, each of us should engage in some personal reflection on the events, the power and the personal meaning of Easter. Our culture has lost the ability to spend time in quiet meditation. Our lives are filled with noise and distractions- I’m writing this while getting the oil changed in my car and in a space under 500 square feet, there are five TVs playing a least three different programs. During this Holy Week, find some time to quietly reflect upon Easter.

The goal of reclaiming the meaning of Easter should not result in another mythical proclamation like a  “War on Christmas.” I don’t believe that there is some group trying to destroy the meaning of Easter through pastel colors, bunnies, chicks and marshmallow peeps. I believe that the world would truly want to hear the message of the Resurrection if they believed that it meant something and if they saw that our God really is alive. God tells the prophet Zechariah that when God comes to live with his people, “ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew [a believer], saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.””

Easter tells us that God did and has come to live with us- in fact, God lives inside of every believer. The Resurrection also tells us that we now live with God (Ephesians 2). If those around us knew that God was with us, perhaps then the words of Zechariah would become true in our day.

Doubt of the Month: Easter

Easter has become about this.

Easter has become about this…

It seems like Easter sneaks up on me every year. Maybe it’s because the date of Easter jumps so haphazardly around the calendar like it’s a cricket trapped in a shoebox. Perhaps it sneaks up on me because I’m too busy eating the chocolate eggs that appear in the store on February 15th.

But I think the actual reason Easter sneaks up on me is because I don’t prepare for Easter. Not only that, many of our churches fail to prepare for Easter- at least not like they prepare for Christmas. In my church we start singing Christmas hymns on December 1st. We hang the green. We decorate the sanctuary with ten feet tall (at least) Christmas trees. We have a church-wide Christmas dinner. We give gifts to families. We construct a living nativity scene complete with live sheep, goats and a donkey. We even have a life-size wooden nativity set that sits in a window over the main entrance to the church and which probably cost $25,000- or something equally ridiculous.

What do we do for Easter? Nothing.

We don’t begin singing Easter hymns weeks before Easter. We don’t decorate the church for Easter. We don’t give anything to the community. We definitely don’t have a $25,000 life-sized wooden Easter scene.


It seems like Easter sneaks up on me every year.


It seems like we don’t really care about Easter like we care about Christmas, VBS, Halloween alternative events, Thanksgiving or summer camp.

In light of all this, I’m doubting Easter. I doubt that Easter means anything to the modern Christian church.

instead of about this. "Resurrection of Christ" by Marco Basaiti, 1520

instead of about this. “Resurrection of Christ” by Marco Basaiti, 1520

Obviously, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, although not as much as I would like. Hopefully your church prepares for Easter and thankfully there are churches and denominations that truly prepare for Easter thought the observance of Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.


I doubt that Easter means anything to the modern Christian church.


What does it mean to those inside our churches and outside our churches when we seemingly emphasize every other holiday and every other event over Easter?

Theologically, it shows that we don’t understand God’s plan and our own salvation. God’s plan and our salvation culminate in the Resurrection of Easter morning and nothing else. God’s plan wasn’t only the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. By our attention and money, however, to those inside and outside the church the culmination and of God’s plan for our salvation ranks low on the list of priorities.

Socially, it shows that we are just as consumer driven as the culture around us. We love Christmas because of the gifts. We love Halloween for the candy. We love Thanksgiving for the food. In many ways we are just as consumer driven as the culture around us. Easter isn’t one of the sexy holidays- unless you’re into Peeps and pastel colors and because it’s not one of the sexy holidays it get forgotten.

Evangelistically, it shows that the message of Jesus isn’t important for those around us. If the Resurrection and Easter are the central and culminating work of God for our salvation, what does it show those around us when it barely makes a blip on our radar? It shows that the message of Jesus isn’t very important to us and it isn’t very important for those around us.

Easter shouldn’t sneak up on us and it shouldn’t merely be another day. It should be the highlight of our calendar year and the celebration of our whole lives.