When Christian-ish is Just Not Enough

“The Almost Christian” (Sermon II) is a sermon that John Wesley delivered before the university at Oxford in 1741. In it he argues that a person can assent to all the right beliefs, participate in all the rituals of the church, make use of all the means of grace, and live according to the highest of moral standards, and yet not truly be a Christian. The “almost Christian” may by all outward appearances look like a Christian, but not truly be a Christian, what Wesley calls an “altogether Christian.”

What is required for someone to be an altogether Christian, a true Christian, according to Wesley, is an inward transformation of the heart to go along with the outward profession of the lips and behavior. Even the most orthodox professions of faith, and the most meticulously religious of lifestyles, may not necessarily spring from a pure and godly heart. Wesley himself admitted that he was but an altogether Christian for a long time, even as a minister in the Church of England who labored diligently to live a holy life.

To be an “altogether Christian” more is required than assent to Biblical truths, religious practices, and even a moral lifestyle. And this more that is needed is not something we can do for ourselves; it is something that only God can do for us through Jesus Christ and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The more that we need is not just conformity to Biblical standards. According to Wesley we need an inward transformation of the heart. To be an altogether Christian, we need the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), which will consequently lead us into genuine love of our neighbors, including enemies. We may say and do all the right things, but if we do so with the wrong motive of heart, namely love of self, then we are still far from the kingdom of God. In other words, we need to be born again (John 3:3-7).

In addition to love, Wesley said, to be an altogether Christian, we need a true and living faith. Indeed, genuine faith inspired by the love of God for us activates genuine godly love in us. But Wesley was quick to point out that the faith of which he spoke should not be confused with mere assent to a certain set of beliefs and practices, no matter how right and true they may be. Indeed, he said, “the faith which bringeth not forth repentance, and love, and all good works, is not that right living faith, but a dead and devilish one” (II:4).

In fact, Wesley was so bold to say that even the demons believe in the virgin birth, miracles, the divinity of Christ, that he died for the sins of humanity and rose again on the third day, that he ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead. He said they, the demons, even believe the articles of religion (of the Church of England at that time) and “all that is written in the Old and New Testament” (II:4 emphasis mine). Wesley went on to say, “And yet for all this faith, they be but devils. They remain still in their damnable estate, lacking the very true Christian faith.”

So the faith that Wesley was talking about involved much more than intellectual assent to set of beliefs, important as that is. The faith of which Wesley spoke, is an genuine trust and absolute commitment to the person of God the Father through Jesus Christ. This is the faith that issues in repentance, love, and all good works. According to Wesley:

“The right and true Christian faith is” (to go on in the words of our own Church), “not only to believe that Holy Scripture and the Articles of our Faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ. It is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey his commandments.” (II:5)

As John Wesley righty discerned, the word of God calls us into a true and living relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We enter this living relationship only through a true and living faith. Of course Wesley wasn’t pitting an experience of faith against the content, the specific beliefs, of the Christian faith. He was simply calling people to receive the inward transforming power of God by faith in addition to the outward conformity to the content of the Christian faith. In other words, he wasn’t suggesting, as some do, that the content of the faith is not that important.

What is really astonishing is that many of the things that Wesley listed as things that even demons know and believe to be true, are not accepted by a lot of people who consider themselves Christian today, even ministers. There are plenty who do not believe that all of the Bible is true. Sure, there are those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but, as with many things, it’s not the words that are used, but the meaning attached to those words that really matters. Often those who say they have a high view of Scripture, but reject orthodox doctrines (as I used to), insist on new interpretations to bring Scripture in line with their reason, desires, and/or sensibilities. Some will cling to their novel interpretations and their claim to a high view of Scripture, but others when pressed and unable to substantiate their views from Scripture will resort to questioning it’s trustworthiness in favor of their own views. Indeed, one of the surest ways to draw the ire of many a Mainline minister today, is to insist that Scripture is without error or infallible, which is a belief that can easily be traced back through the early church fathers to the apostles and Jesus himself.

Others will claim to believe in the orthodox doctrines concerning the nature of God, but, again, radically redefine them. How for instance can one really believe in the Triune God in light of the First Commandment and yet claim that other gods are just as valid? Some will speak of the Triune God and perhaps belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ, but what does that mean when it comes from someone with a pluralistic, syncretistic worldview that insists all religions lead to the same place? I think the meaning of those orthodox terms would be radically different than within a worldview that whole-heartedly believes the First Commandment understood in its historical, biblical context. As the United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden said he used to do before he experienced the change of heart that Wesley preached, some use the language of orthodoxy while all along undermining its true meaning.

In contrast to Wesley, some today seem to insist that even what Wesley called almost Christian may be too much to expect. Despite the attempts of some to narrow the range of what he considered to be essential doctrines that one must believe in order to be considered Christian, John Wesley included obedience to the moral law to be among the essentials and part of the ground for genuine Christian fellowship within the church universal. In his sermon “Catholic Spirit” he writes:

Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence?” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?”  Sermon 39: Section 1:16

While Wesley made abundant room for varying opinions regarding modes of worship, baptism, and the particulars of church government, there is absolutely no reason to believe that he would allow for differing opinions regarding basic Christian morality. Indeed, I have no doubt that he would have no patience whatsoever for anyone who would insist on rejecting any of the clear moral commands of Scripture, which he, along with David (Psalm 19:7-11), Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20), and Paul (Romans 7:12), believed to be holy and perfect.

Yet some still want to insist that we don’t even need the faith of what Wesley called an “almost Christian”, really even what Wesley described as the faith of demons. Instead for many Christian-ish is plenty. Some want to insist that theology, or beliefs about God are all that really matter, and that issues of holiness are secondary matters. Some want to boil it all down to the least they have to believe to still be considered Christian. But if someone’s faith falls short of what Wesley said even the demons believe, can they possibly have a living faith that leads to “a loving heart, to obey [God’s] commandments”? (‘The Almost Christian” II:5)

Maybe Wesley was too extreme. Maybe being “almost Christian” is enough. Maybe even less than that, just being kind of sort of Christian-ish is enough. Then again, maybe Wesley was right, and being either of those is to still be totally lost.

Maybe settling for the minimum set of theological beliefs about God apart from the particulars of a holy life is foolish when the God we say we believe in says he created us in his image and says to us, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 quoting Leviticus 11:44 – KJV).

Assenting to a particular set of beliefs is not enough. Living according to a particular set of standards is not enough. But God’s grace to forgive us and cleanse us by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out is more than enough. What would Wesley tell us to do?John Wesley preaching

Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and call upon thy God: call in the day when he may be found. Let him not rest, till he make his “goodness to pass before thee;” till he proclaim unto thee the name of the Lord, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.” Let no man persuade thee, by vain words, to rest short of this prize of thy high calling. (emphasis mine). But cry unto him day and night, who, “while we were without strength, died for the ungodly,” until thou knowest in whom thou hast believed, and canst say, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember, “always to pray, and not to faint,” till thou also canst lift up thy hand unto heaven, and declare to him that liveth for ever and ever, “Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee.”

May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only; but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!  (“The Almost Christian” Section II:10-11)

 

 

The Promise with Power: The New Covenant

Below is a sermon I delivered this morning via Skype to a church in Islamabad, Pakistan. Before I delivered the message I sent a written copy several days before for the pastor there to review. He reminded me that they don’t have free speech there so he wanted to make sure there was nothing that might unnecessarily cause danger for him or his people. I was aware of the potential danger ahead of time, but his caution really brought it home. If you have taken our right to free speech for granted, may this be a wake up call, and may we all be thankful and not take it for granted.

I chose this particular message to put the message of salvation in the name of Jesus as soundly as I could in a short time in the overall storyline of the Bible as a fulfillment of the promises of God made in the Old Testament. Bibles are not easy to come by there , so most of them may not be familiar with how the story of Jesus is connected to the promises in the Old Testament. As far as that goes neither are most of the people in our churches in America even though we have such easy access to an astonishing abundance of Bibles in countless varieties.

Nevertheless, by connecting Jesus with the promises made to Abraham and the prophets I hoped to find common ground with those who may be from an Islamic background, and certainly all of them in a predominantly Muslim country. I also wanted to emphasize the promise of a new heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit along with the promise of forgiveness, as so often the later is emphasized at the expense of the former. See the message below.

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Brothers and sisters, I am very honored and humbled to be able to preach the good news about Jesus the Messiah and to teach you from the word of God the power in the promise of the New Covenant.

So often today in my country the complete message of salvation in the name of Jesus is cut short. As a result many do not really receive salvation at all or they do not live fully into the experience of salvation that Jesus died and rose again to create.

The reason that the message about Jesus is good news is because he fulfilled the promises of God for the world through his ministry, teaching, death on the cross, the resurrection, and ascension. Those promises that he fulfilled are found in what we call the Old Testament in the Bible.

One of the most significant promises was the promise made to Abraham. In a world lost in idolatry and false worship, God, the Creator of heaven and earth, introduced Himself to Abraham and established a covenant relationship with him and his children through Isaac and then Jacob. Through the children of Abraham, which became the nation of Israel, God promised Abraham that all the peoples and nations of the world would find blessing and once again come to know the true God. That promise is first found in Genesis 12:1-3, and is restated many times throughout the whole Bible, including the New Testament.

After the near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, after providing a lamb for sacrifice, God once again promised Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (verse 18). The apostle Paul in the New Testament makes it clear that the ultimate fulfillment of that promise is found in Jesus who was a descendent of Abraham and the one who offered God the perfect obedience that the rest of humanity, Gentile and Jew, failed to offer.

Galatians 3:7-14 English Standard Version (ESV)

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior of the world because he fulfilled the promise to Abraham, which was a promise for all the peoples of the world. Through the death of Jesus on the cross all people everywhere, Jew and Gentile, can receive forgiveness of sins and the promised Holy Spirit by faith to enter into the family of God.

You see, the Old Covenant always contained the promise of the New Covenant. The covenant that God made with Abraham and the Jews was always meant for the blessing of the whole world. Because of sin the law of God brought a curse upon all of humanity. Not because the law is bad, but because sin, a selfish spirit and corrupted desires of the human heart, make obedience impossible and disobedience inevitable. Obedience to God’s law leads to blessing; disobedience leads to cursing. The law is good but it cannot save us from sin, only the grace of God in Jesus the Messiah can do that. The sacrifice of Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, brings forgiveness and allows us to receive the promised Holy Spirit. The promise of the New Covenant was forgiveness and a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit upon all who believe.

Listen to the great prophet Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (ESV)

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Here the prophet Jeremiah calls this new thing that God would do for his people a new covenant. This promise applies to all of God’s people, which would in the future include people of all nations and languages. Based on the promise to Abraham and the fact that the Bible tells us that God is the Creator and God of all nations, the prophets also foresaw the day when Gentiles would also be welcomed into the family of Abraham to worship the one true God. Isaiah foresaw the day when people of all nations would flow into Jerusalem to walk in the way of the Lord (Isaiah 2:2-3) and that the one who would be the suffering servant to redeem God’s people would also be a light to the nations that God’s salvation would spread throughout the whole world (Isaiah 49:6). The prophet Zechariah also foresaw the day when many nations would join themselves to the Lord and become a part of His special people (Zechariah 2:11), as did other prophets under the Old Covenant. As the apostle Paul said in Galatians, we all become children of Abraham by faith in Jesus to share in the promises made to Abraham and Israel after him. Listen to how Paul describes the fulfillment of these promises in Ephesians 2:11-22:

 

Ephesians 2:11-22 (ESV)

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

The promise in Jeremiah 31 is about the consummate forgiveness to which all the Old Covenant sacrificial laws pointed, but not just forgiveness. The promise was also that God would write his laws on our hearts. The promise mentioned here is stated even more clearly by the great prophet Ezekiel. Listen.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 (ESV)

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

The promise here is for a new spirit and a new heart, one no longer corrupted and bound by sin. The promise was that God would put his very own Spirit in us. Why?: So that we will be able to obey God’s law from the heart with the right attitude and the proper motivations. This is what God was referring to in Jeremiah when he said he would put his law within us and write it on our hearts.

The promise of God to Abraham included the blessing of all nations through his seed, which ultimately and most fully was Jesus the Messiah. The promise also included forgiveness and a new heart and a new spirit and to be filled with God’s very own Spirit, which is “the promised Spirit” that the apostle Paul was talking about in Galatians 3:14. This is also the new birth that Jesus talked about in John 3, when he told Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God and enter into it you must be born again from above of the Spirit.

The promises of God that we receive by faith in Jesus Christ who fulfilled them includes forgiveness and new birth, a regenerated spirit with a new heart by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit coming to live inside of us. By faith we are justified in the eyes of God and receive the promised Spirit, who changes us from the inside out to live a godly life in harmony with the moral law of God in order to bring glory and honor to God the Father. This is what Romans 8 means when it says the Spirit enables believers to fulfill the just requirement of the law, specifically the moral law of God as summed up in the Ten Commandments. Those who have the Spirit are enabled to submit to God’s law and obey because of what God has done in His grace through sending his Son.

Now as Ezekiel 37 would indicate, the promise will not be completely fulfilled until the resurrection. Jesus’ own resurrection was the first fruits of a much greater harvest yet to come. Those who have trusted in God will be resurrected to live in a new creation, a new heaven and earth (see Revelation 21:1-8). It is then that the promise of perfect obedience by the power of the Spirit, and therefore perfect blessing without any curse, will be fully complete. But in the meantime, we are being renewed day by day as we renew our minds to God’s word, the Spirit is writing more and more of God’s law into our hearts and spirits. Right now our task is to grow into the salvation that God has wrought for us in Jesus the Messiah. When we sin, we are assured that God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9) so that we can become more and more holy in our walk with God.

By faith we enter into the new covenant family of God as new born babes. And as new born babes we need to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus the Messiah and to be filled more and more with the Spirit of God until we are mature and strong in the Lord and the power of his might to stand against the devices of the devil who would deceive us and keep us from receiving the fullness of the promises of God.

Don’t just settle for forgiveness without the personal transformation that was meant to go along with it, because if you do you may not receive either. By faith we must allow God to remake us from the inside out, which is a life-long process. It is a hard, narrow path, as Jesus said, in Matthew 7:13-14, but it does lead to abundant life and everlasting happiness in the world to come.

Jesus has fulfilled so many of the promises of God already, the fact that you and I can call each other brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus being one of them. We can trust that our hope is secure and that Jesus will bring what he has started to full completion when he comes again to judge the world. He will bring with him an incorruptible new life for those who have died in faith and a new immortal body for those who are still alive in the faith when he comes. His promises are sure; his word trustworthy and true. For those who trust in him he promises new life, both now in this world, and fully and completely in the world to come.

Trust in him. Grow up into him. Be strong in the Lord and the power of his might. And stand firm in the holy faith and in his holy church as witnesses to God’s faithful love and His transforming grace.

The New Covenant is not a prescription of precepts that we follow in order to be saved; The New Covenant is a promise of power fulfilled by the grace of God in the obedience of Jesus Christ that we might receive forgiveness of sin and the power we need to live a life of obedience to the will of God. In other words we are not saved BY obedience; rather we are saved for obedience to God’s word. We are not saved by works; but we are saved for good works (see Ephesians 2:8-10).

Listen to Titus 2:11-14:

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

The New Covenant was a promise of forgiveness and power and blessing fulfilled by Jesus Christ that we can receive by faith in him. If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to receive it today by faith in Jesus the Messiah, and be filled with all the fullness of God. To Him be all the glory, honor and praise!

Let us pray.

Father,

I thank you for these my sisters and brothers in the faith of Jesus Christ. I thank you for your great love in Jesus Christ our Lord and for the power and presence of your promised Holy Spirit. We love you Father. Help all of us to grow in your grace so that we may be more obedient to your holy word. Thank you for forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. Thank you for new birth by the power of your Spirit. Help all of us to renew our minds and to be more and more transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Fill us with all of your fullness that we might live to the honor and glory of your name. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

 

“The Shack”: How Firm a Foundation?

Several weeks ago I received a message from one of my church members asking for my thoughts on the book “The Shack” and the movie that was just coming out at that time based on the book. She said she had read something critical of the story, which she had read, and had even participated in a church study group a few years ago on the book. At that point I had only heard about “The Shack”, but had never read it even thought it had been recommended to me. Neither was I familiar with the author, Paul Young. Since I knew little to nothing about the book or the author, I really couldn’t say much for sure. I did tell her that if it varies too far from the revelation of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible then it might be misleading.the-shack-grayscale-graphic3.jpeg

Over the course of the next several weeks I did come across some articles that were critical of “The Shack”, a couple from the reformed and conservative Lutheran branches of the church, and a couple from evangelical United Methodists  (See Dr. Ben Witherington’s thoughts here and Dr. Chris Ritter’s here). I also listened to some interviews with the author, Paul Young. It seemed to me that there was indeed much to be wary of. Yet the reviews were mixed with some praise for “The Shack” movie, at least, coming from some conservative evangelical voices.

Last week I stayed up late a couple of nights and actually read “The Shack” in its entirety. I know some have tried to dismiss the concerns that have been expressed over the last several years by saying that it’s just a fictional story, a parable, and therefore shouldn’t be criticized so much for theological imprecision. But is it true that there is only room for theological nitpicking when it comes to this story?

Paul Young has made it clear that he intended to describe his view of God and what God is really like in story of “The Shack.” His parable is also certainly about dealing with human pain and brokenness that result from broken relationships and injustice, but he also wants to correct what he perceives to be misconceptions about God that exacerbate that pain. So “The Shack” paints a portrait of Young’s view of God. The question is whether or not this a complimentary or contradictory portrait of God compared to what we find in the Bible.

The first clue that Young might be setting up a contradictory view comes fairly early in the book, on page 65-66. At this point in the storyline the reader has already been rocked by the nightmarish tragedy of the main character, Mack, barely rescuing one of his children from drowning, only to discover, after a frantic search, that his young daughter, Missy, has been abducted by a cold-hearted, callous serial killer, called “the Little Lady Killer.” Also at this point the reader is hooked by a momentous mystery. Mack has received a note in the mail box inviting him to return to the shack deep in the woods where he and law enforcement had found Missy’s ripped, blood-soaked dress. The note is signed, “Papa”, his wife’s affectionate name for God. As Mack ponders whether the note might actually be a tantalizing invitation to meet with God or a taunting trick of a serial killer still at large, Paul Young, as the narrator, brings into question Mack’s seminary training that he says had reduced God’s voice to the paper of Scripture in order to keep God bound in a book only to be interpreted by the proper authorities. Young says sarcastically, “Nobody wanted to keep God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p. 66)

Here, I think, we have more than a little hint that the God Mack will encounter in the shack will burst the boundaries of traditional evangelical interpretation at minimum and probably even the contours of the way God is described in the Bible itself. It seems pretty obvious that Young here anticipates criticism and objections to his view of God and was probably trying to inoculate his enthused readers from criticism by way of caricaturing his inevitable critics. Again, the question is not whether the depiction of God in terms of the metaphors and symbolism used by Young is identical to what we find in Scripture, but is his depiction of God in harmony with or contradictory to what we find in Scripture? Was Young suggesting that God may reveal himself in new ways, but in ways that are in harmony with the Bible, or was he suggesting that God may reveal himself in ways that contradict and therefore correct the Bible itself?

In “The Shack” Young boldly attempts to cast his vision of God in terms of the Christian concept of the Trinity. There are some commendable features to Young’s explanations of the Trinity in that he captures that God is inherently and eternally a relational being of mutual respect and love. Overall, however, he blurs together the distinctions between the three persons enough that it seems more like a functional Unitarianism than the Trinity. All three persons bear the marks of crucifixion and all three are described as becoming human in the incarnation (i.e. John 1:14 when the word became flesh).

Moreover, in terms of the depiction of Jesus, he seems to be for all practical purposes fully human but not really divine. Sure Young describes him as divine and even as the God-man, but functionally his version of Jesus never has or ever will draw upon his divine nature to do anything. He only lives moment by moment as every human being was designed to live in relation with God and relying on God’s power. Papa tells Mack that Jesus was “just the first to do it to the uttermost” (p. 100). Young’s Jesus is nominally and inherently divine but not functionally so, even  after the resurrection and ascension.

This may seem like nitpicking, but this is a different portrait of Jesus than the Biblical portrait that reveals that Jesus not only shares the divine name and titles such as I Am, the Lord, God, the Alpha and the Omega, etc., he also shares and exercises  divine power and functions such as the power to raise the dead (John 5:21), including raising himself (John 2:19-21). Jesus also exercises the divine authority to judge, a power delegated to him by the Father, who judges no one, Jesus says (John 5:22-23, see also Rev 4 & 5 ff). And, as we will see, divine judgment gets redefined quite a bit too in “The Shack.” Nevertheless, “The Shack” seems to have a high Christology nominally but a very low Christology functionally

Young also gives us a much more confused version of the Trinity than necessary. Of course it is a great mystery of the Christian faith, but the mystery of God’s divine nature should not be used as an excuse to blur and redefine those things that God has revealed to us in Jesus and in Scripture. One such area of confusion is in terms of Young’s depiction of the Trinity as non-hierarchical. That is, that there is no hierarchy of authority between the three persons. Young does not believe that genuine relationship can involve any hierarchy. To Young hierarchy is inherently bad and only a result of broken relationships. So, of course, there would be no hierarchy among the perfect relational being. Yet, again, this is not the portrait of God that we find in the Bible. God the Father sends the Son, the Son reveals the Father and is the way to the Father, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit who brings glory to the Son, who in turn brings glory to the Father. Jesus said himself that the Father is greater than him (John 14:28) and 1 Corinthians 15 indicates that when Christ has subdued all things under his authority he himself will be subjected to God the Father. Young seems to envision the perfect being and the perfect society in terms of an absolute equality of power and authority in mutual submission. Consequently, Young also conveys an anti-institutional sentiment throughout the book. I believe this is directly connected to his view of God, or possibly vice versa.

The Bible, however, does not convey the idea that a hierarchy of authority is inherently bad, even within the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in terms of their shared divine nature and the dignity and honor that accompany that nature, but the Bible does portray them as having different levels of authority. Likewise God created human beings in his image and we are all equal in terms of human dignity by virtue of our shared human nature, but God has given each of us talents and gifts that differ from one another. So some will have more authority in society and in the church than others. Those God-given higher authorities are to be obeyed in so far as they are in harmony with the highest authority, which is God (see Romans 13, Hebrews 13:17, Acts ).

Hierarchy is not inherently bad. What is bad is selfishness and greed inspired by sin that can cause some to abuse their God-given authority. Hierarchy is not inherently corrupt just because it can be corrupted. There is no possibility of that within the being who is absolutely perfect and incorruptible in righteousness, justice, and holiness. And relationships don’t have to be less loving because of differing levels of authority.

Institutions are not inherently bad either. They too can become corrupt and abusive, but they doesn’t make them inherently so. If there is to be order rather than confusion and chaos there will inevitably be organization, which will lead to organizations. Young seems to make the mistake of thinking you can have the power of spirituality without the form of religion, such as ritual and institutions. To acknowledge the power of spirituality one need not deny the form of religion (see 2 Tim 3:5).

Young also reveals an impoverished view of the law and rules and responsibilities. He has Sarayu, his character for the Holy Spirit, answer in the affirmative to Mack’s question, “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” Young’s Holy Spirit responds, “Yes, In Jesus you at not under any law. All things are lawful” (p. 203). At best this is a confused conception of Christian liberty based on a misunderstood slogan from the 1st century church on Corinth (see context of 1 Cor. 10:23). God’s grace and the power of the Spirit don’t free us from the moral law to live contrary to it if we want. God’s grace frees us from the righteous condemnation that disobedience to the law brings, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to live in harmony with the law of God (see Romans 8 & Galatians 5:16-26). As with hierarchy and institutions, Young, at least, seems to imply that there is something deficient and inferior about the law itself in contrast to Paul who insisted that the law is good (Romans 7).

Indeed the law of God itself is good, it is a reflection of the very character of the holy and righteous God. The problem is not the law; it is sin. Because of sin, the law can only condemn. According to Romans 8 the Spirit enables believers to overcome the power of sin so that by walking in the Spirit the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us (v. 4) because we will submit to God’s law (v. 7-9). This was the promise of the New Covenant all along (see Jer 31:31-34; Ezk 36:25-27), which Young seems to allude to, but he does so in a confused way that throughout history has led to misunderstanding grace as a license to sin rather than freedom from sin for obedience to God’s law. Compare part of the New Covenant promise found in Ezekiel 36:27 fulfilled in Jesus to what Young’s version of the Holy Spirit says in “The Shack.”

“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” Ezk 36:27 ESV

“‘Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?’ Mack had now completely stopped eating and was concentrating on the conversation. ‘Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” The Shack p. 203 

Young’s main concern with the law is not that it leads to the righteous judgment of God because of sin, but that law leads to the worst sin of all in the eyes of Young and most of the more liberal persuasion in general: judgmentalism. The God of “The Shack” is loving, affirming, and accepting, but not really into judgment, at least not as traditionally understood.  The God of “The Shack” is not concerned about responsibilities and expectations because that would lead to guilt, shame, and judgment. Young’s God is never disappointed with people (ps. 205-26). No expectations? Never disappointed with anyone?

How does that portrait compare to Jesus’ telling of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30? What about Mark 9:38?! How does it square with Micah 6:8 that tells us what God requires of us? Of course what God requires God provides by his grace and his Spirit if we will turn to him, but he does seem to expect us to work from, NOT for, but FROM the grace he has given us to produce fruit (Mark 12:1-12?).

And what about the judgment of God? The God of “The Shack” does judge but not for destruction, only for redemption (ps. 169; 224). For Young the fire of God’s judgment is for purification not condemnation. But God never punishes. Indeed God doesn’t punish sin; he only cures it (p. 120). Of course God can and does cure sin, but will the Great Physician cure those who absolutely refuse to receive his medicine of immortality?

As many have long suspected Paul Young envisions a God of universal salvation, meaning all will eventually be saved. This fits well with his vision of the nature and character of God in which he emphasizes love and mercy at the expense of justice for those who refuse to repent (see Rev 6,14,16, 20, & 21). In “The Shack” after Jesus shocks Mack by saying he doesn’t care if people of other religions become Christian, Mack asks if that means all roads lead to him. Young cleverly has Jesus respond, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”

This clever response probably provided Young with some wiggle room to dodge reasonable concerns that he intended to promote universalism. 20 million copies sold later, he apparently no longer feels like he needs any wiggle room. In his newest book, “Lies We Believe About God,” he makes explicit what was more subtle in “The Shack.” He leaves no doubt that he believes that everyone is already saved and that it is a lie that anyone “needs to get saved” (see Tim Challies’ article). He said as much in “The Shack” to begin with. He believes that everyone is on the same path and headed in the right direction, some are just farther along than others. And death in no way will end that journey and neither will hell.

But what does the Jesus of the Bible say?

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few

 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:13-27 ESV (see also Matthew 24 &25)

Of course those of the more liberal theological persuasion will probably love “The Shack.” Those steeped in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that pervades so many churches will embrace it and promote it. It will find plenty of welcome on the OWN (Oprah Network) and in New Age circles as well. And some conservatives who were a little too eager to give Paul Young the benefit of the doubt may not have seen the red flags that have been there all along.

“The Shack” serves up quite a bit of false assurance with the big helpings of comfort food coming out of Papa’s kitchen in the shack. The vision of God that Young portrays is really not complimentary with the revelation of God in the Bible. The two views are contradictory. To build your life on the theology of “The Shack” is to build on shifting sand. To build your life on God’s word is to build your life on the Rock Christ Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible. You really have to choose, and there is no indication in the Bible that you will have all of eternity to do it.

The Hard Truth

In the 19th century leading up to and during the Civil War, Mark Knoll argues that there was a theological crisis (in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”) that fueled much of the heat of the debate before and the bloodshed during the conflict. The war that pitted American against American and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides was driven in large part by theological and philosophical certainty on both sides. This certainty was inspired by an overconfidence in the Enlightenment notion of reason. It was believed that the truth was easily discerned by people of goodwill. As a result it was easy to dismiss those with opposing views as willfully distorting the truth. Those, including some black preachers, with more subtle, nuanced, and substantial arguments against slavery as it was practiced in America that depended on the wider biblical and historical context were muted by the overwhelming cacophony of simplistic arguments undergirded by biblical prooftexts ripped from their context. The simplistic arguments governed by this overconfidence in reason made demonization and polarization  all the easier on both sides. (I highly recommend Mark Knoll’s book.)

Once again we find ourselves deeply divided and extremely polarized in America to the point that some have suggested there is a cold Civil War that’s getting warmer and warmer all the time. Now, however, it’s not so much that there is an overconfidence in the ability to know the truth, but an overconfidence that truth is merely subjective or so unknowable that anyone’s guess is as good as another’s.

The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that life is not about the will to truth as much as it is about the will to power. According to this way of thinking truth claims are simply cloaks for some to ascend to power over others. Therefore relatisix and nine perspectivevism has reigned supreme for many decades now, and not only among the cultural intelligentsia.

The meme to the right has made many rounds on social media. The idea is that both people are right in their claim to what the number is because they are just looking at the same thing from different perspectives. In this abstract hypothetical illustration that claim may very well be true, but if the intended implication is that all of life is like this we would rightly be wary. In the real  world there’s not much that exists apart from some context. And context always narrows the range of possible legitimate interpretations of words and actions.

Take the number in the illustration above and imagine it on a championship team photograph for your favorite college basketball team as part of a heading that says “2016 NCAA Men’s College Basketball National Champions.” To say it is nine instead of six now would be a  much more dubious proposition. One could argue that the 6 is a typo that was meant to be 9, but even then one would also have to believe someone like Marty McFly brought the picture back from the future in Doc Brown’s time traveling machine. There would be a lot of other immediate contextual clues and more remote historical evidence (i.e. print and online news reports) that would more than justify the claim that the number is really six instead of nine. The accumulation of evidence would narrow the range of meaning evermore as the contextual evidence mounted. Historians rely on this and logical deduction to determine the motivations of actions or the meaning of words expressed by figures in history. Detectives also rely on contextual evidence and logical deduction to solve crimes.

Relativism leaves us at the mercy of subjectivism; subjectivism leaves us at the mercy of the will to power. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated that those bent on the will to power have not proven themselves all that merciful. The will to power is not concerned with truth, only claims to truth. Facts become putty in the hands of people more concerned about controlling narratives to influence perception,which they insist is reality. Whoever can be the cleverest to persuade enough people wins. But relativism, it seems, has not robbed many of those who adhere to it of certainty. Unlike the early 19th century, however, the certainty is not rooted so much in reason. Now for many the certainty seems to be rooted in desire and the beliefs inspired by it. Many are certain about what they want, and they bend reason and facts to suit their desires.

I think Nietzsche really was on to something. I believe in absolute truth, although I don’t believe in the human ability to know it easily, and certainly not exhaustively. I don’t believe we can know much of anything with certainty in any absolute exhaustive or complete sense. There is always much more than we can know about any given thing. We know in part and what we do see we see through a glass dimly and obscurely, as the apostle Paul noted (1 Cor.13:12) . We can’t know anything certainly, but because of that we will all come to believe certain things about what we do know with conviction. Faith in something is inevitable for all of us. We are are wise, however, we should be open to modifying or changing our beliefs in the light of more evidence. If we are absolute ideologues, however, we will not. In that case we will cherry-pick the evidence that supports our existing beliefs and ignore or suppress evidence that doesn’t.

Nietzsche, the son of a pastor, came to believe something. According Damon Linker, Nietzsche “presents us with the peculiar spectacle of a philosopher who began his intellectual life, not from a position of openness to an elusive truth not yet grasped, but rather from an unshakable conviction that he had already found it, and that all of human experience and history had to be reconceived in its light” ( https://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/08/nietzsches-truth). What was this truth that the man who claimed that all claims to truth are just cloaks for the will to power? According to Linker, Nietzsche biographer, Rudiger Safranski, reveals a man who “devoted his formidable intellect to making sense of the world in terms of its intrinsic meaninglessness.” Apparently his presupposition was that life is meaningless from which the conclusion that we can make it mean anything we want is easily derived, want meaning desire being key.

Living only according to the fulfillment of our own desires is what the Bible describes as “having no hope and without God in the world” (this state described in Eph 2:12 corresponds with the state of being described in Eph 2:1-3). This seems to be exactly the state that Nietzsche found himself in, which led him to conclude that is all there is. It is all there is for sinful man apart from God, but in His mercy God in Christ offers us more (Eph 2:4…).  Considering that his earliest philosophical work was “On the Origin of Evil” at the age of 12, perhaps Nietzsche starred into the abyss too long at too young an age. Narcissism and nihilism, both of which are characteristics of evil, definitely found welcome in his soul, which is probably what left his mind debilitated by insanity at age 45.

Humanity in sin is a slave to corrupted human desires such as greed, sloth, and lust. For these corrupted human desires truth, another name for the higher desire and will of God the Creator, and reality come to be seen as subservient to desire. Living with our own corrupted desire exalted above truth, however, as Ephesians 2 indicates, leaves us at the mercy of the spiritual forces of evil, which, again, have always proven to be merciless. But when our desire is exalted above all, we will attempt to bend reality, the truth, to serve our desires. In other words, we will lie, which involves distorting the truth and/or suppressing it.

While those who are playing the game of the will to power often say that all beliefs are equally valid, they obviously care a great deal that people believe some things but not other things. Hence, the use of propaganda and clever tactics of persuasion, which often involves distortion and suppression of evidence that would make the case for the truth or the closest possible approximation of it.

From the the biblical perspective sinners don’t live for the truth; sinners live for the fulfillment of their own desires. As a result truth becomes either useful, malleable, or dispensable depending on the combination of the circumstances and what is most conducive to personal expediency. When one’s own desires rule, the attempt will be made to make truth bow. Wherever sinful desires reign truth will suffer suppression. But the truth is the only thing that can set us free from slavish desire and the prince of the power of the air who uses those so enslaved for his own narcissistic and nihilistic purposes.

The will to power is the devil’s game, and it is often waged with clever sounding slogans designed to persuade enough people that those wielding the slogans can fulfill their desires for comfort, security, and pleasure usually without the troublesome specter of personal responsibility and accountability. Often these sinister slogans come in the form of prooftexts from the Bible.

Referencing specific verses or passages from the Bible is not wrong, after all Jesus himself did exactly that in fending off the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). It’s not wrong as long as we don’t do it like the devil himself did to tempt Jesus by quoting a part of Scripture without regard to the overall context and tenor of the Bible as a whole (i.e. Matt 4:5-7). We should always endeavor to use any particular biblical text in a way that is in harmony with the overall context of the message of the Bible as a whole. The same is true for the writings and speeches of other people too, by the way. The same goes for scientific (hard and soft sciences) studies as well. More context can only help to clarify by narrowing the range of legitimate interpretations.

Someone who is not interested in context is not interested in the truth. The most pressing debates among us can never be settled by who can mount the most prooftexts for their cause. Recently, for example, some who usually aren’t so concerned about what the Bible says about some things, like sex, were suddenly concerned that people care about what the Bible says about the way we treat immigrants and refugees.

In order to make the case for a liberal immigration policy and against a particular conservative view, many provided a slew of prooftexts from the Bible. The gist of what many of them were arguing seemed to strongly imply that it is an easy, open and shut case, that all immigrants should be welcomed without question and hesitation. Some even argued that safety shouldn’t be a significant concern because it is not a priority for Jesus, who obviously didn’t consider safety when he risked arrest and crucifixion. When some of them were challenged by arguments that put the liberal prooftexts back into the light of the original context, they just dismissed it as an attempt to make excuses for disobeying the clear commands of Scripture with regard for the care of immigrants and refugees.

But many of those same people are not so strict when it comes to the clear commands of Scripture with regards to sexual ethics, commands that, as I have shown before, are even considered to be clear by some of the most prominent liberal scholars. Some, who on the one hand want to argue that 2000 plus year old texts have no relevance for sexual ethics in 21st century America, on the other want to argue that it’s just a simple matter of biblical obedience with regard to the current immigration debate in the United States in 2017. I think we should be very welcoming and lavish in our generosity toward immigrants and certainly refugees, but we can do that without throwing caution to the wind. The issue is complicated. I don’t know exactly what should be done. It seems pretty obvious that there is a higher calculus at work than just helping people in need. There’s obviously political power at stake on both sides. Nevertheless, from a biblical point of view the issue is also definitely more complicated than some want to acknowledge.

Just take one of the prooftexts for example.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34 ESV)

This is a beautiful and wonderful text, one that is certainly echoed by Jesus in the second half of Matthew 25. But, look, this text itself evokes a much broader context of the story line it’s found in. This text must be understood within the story of Israel coming out of Egypt and wandering in the wilderness before they enter into the promised land of Canaan. The stranger here being evoked is not necessarily someone who would have migrated from another country, but was in many cases a person of one of the Canaanite tribes who inhabited the land before Israel arrived to take possession of the land. For the Israelites this meant driving out the Canaanites who refused to accept Israelite control of the land and to live according to the laws of Israel’s God, Yahweh.

  “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Lev 18:24-28 ESV

The strangers or foreigners to be loved as the Israelites loved themselves were those who agreed to live peaceably among them, and were often of the Canaanites who originally inhabited the land, like Rahab (Josh 2 & 6), the Gibeonites (Josh 9; 2 Samuel 21), and Uriah the Hittite. Yes they were to love the stranger/foreigner who was committed to living peaceably with them, but there were also general restrictions for certain nations that had proven hostile to Israel when they came out of Egypt, like Moab. Moab tried to have them cursed and eventually seduced Israel into sexual immorality, which is what God warns against in Leviticus 18 above, and idolatry (Numbers 22-25). Of course the Moabite Ruth, who accepted the God of Israel as her own, is a significant exception to the general restriction. There’s much more that could be said, but if you think Leviticus 19:33-34 and other texts like it make an open and shut case for a particular view on the current immigration and refugee debate in the United States … Well, I don’t know what to say.

We cannot prooftext our way into the kingdom of God. We can’t prooftext and cherry-pick our way to the truth. Soundbites and slogans won’t suffice. We can’t prooftext and cherry-pick our way to peace and prosperity either. If all we have is personalized individual truths designed to fulfill personalized individual desires, all we will have is never ending conflict and misery. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions; I suppose it’s also replete with slogans and prooftexts for road signs along the way. Getting to the truth requires much more than prooftexts, it requires context and a lot of patience and work, hard work. And that is the truth, the hard truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning with Ashes

Below are some of my reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent from last year with a few additional thoughts:

We begin in the mud of ashes, a journey in the dark shadow of the cross, knowing it’s a shadow cast by the glorious light of the resurrection. Why begin Lent with ashes?ashes_6329cnp

In the Bible ashes, often paired with sackcloth, a coarse and uncomfortable material, symbolize repentance, humility, and/or mourning in the aftermath of disaster or impending potential doom. Upon encountering God, after seriously questioning God’s justice in the midst of his own great suffering, Job repents in dust and ashes. The king of Nineveh, with Jonah’s reluctant pronouncement of looming judgment, fasted in sackcloth and repented in ashes. Ashes remind Christians of some of the first words of our Savior’s preaching, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Ashes also remind us of the righteous judgment of God that stands against us because of sin, as well as its penalty, which is death. The penalty for rebellion against God’s law, is “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Although physical death is included, the worst of it is spiritual death, being cut off from God, the source of life, goodness, and blessing.

Accepting the black mark of ashes on our forehead at the beginning of Lent symbolizes our acceptance of the righteous judgment of God against us as sinners. It is to confess, as did Daniel on behalf of Israel as he sought God’s face through prayer and fasting in sackcloth and ashes, that we were and are wrong to break God’s commandments and that God’s judgment against us is right and just (see Daniel 9:3-19).

Nevertheless, the mark of the ashes in the sign of the cross reminds us of God’s mercy because His only Son, the perfectly holy and righteous One, took the penalty that we deserved and “bore our sins in his own body” (1 Peter 2:24) with the result that we who were spiritually dead in sin received new life through forgiveness by the canceling of the debts and just legal decrees that stood against us, which “he set aside nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15).

The mark of ashes also reminds us of our need to take up our cross daily, to die to sin, to “put to death” any lingering attachments to the old age, the fallen world that is passing away, and any remaining corrupt desires and habits of our old selves before we were born anew into the kingdom of God (Colossians 3:1-17). We engage in this discipline of Lent, not to be saved, but because we are saved; and because we are saved, we know we are being saved daily as we grow into “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

The ashes remind us that “in the midst of life we are in death.” The sign of the cross reminds us that “our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). It is He who sent his very own Son to die for us so that we could live for Him.

In Christ we can live as those who are prepared to die, to die daily to sin, and, therefore to die in hope at our appointed day to stand before the judge of all the earth (Hebrews 9:27). We die in the black shadow of the cross but also in the light of the resurrection. When we are prepared to die; truly we are prepared to live, knowing that the one who formed us from the carbon dust of creation to begin with will from the ashes and dust of death raise us to new life, daily, and on the last day. Are you prepared to die?

In the beginning God formed us from dust and ashes. He formed us like clay; His fingerprints are all over us. He breathed into us the breath of life. When we rebelled and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast. In sin we return to the dust and ashes. By grace through faith we rise with Christ to walk in newness of life now and on the last day we will rise again from the ashes of the sinful world from which God makes all things new. Those who humbly begin in ashes end up in glory.

Temple Building & Sabbath: Holy Work Requires Holy Rest

Exodus 31:1-11 tells of God empowering and enabling certain people, Bezalel, Oholiab, and others to make the tabernacle where God’s presence would dwell and all of the furniture, articles, and instruments to be used in it. The Spirit of God empowered and equipped this select group to do this holy work. What is interesting is that this passage is followed immediately with a reminder about the importance of keeping the Sabbath. Even the holy work of making the tabernacle did not exempt Bezalel and the gang from taking Sabbath rest.

Under the New Covenant all of God’s people are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered for the holy work of building up the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4), a process through which God is preparing us to be a holy temple, a place where his presence will dwell forever (see Eph 2:18-22; Rev 3:12). All Christians are called and empowered for this holy work, yet there are certain people who are set apart to serve and lead this holy work in unique ways.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.  We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16 NRSV)

Some, like me, have been called to focus exclusively as clergy on leading the people of God in the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ. The word of God in Exodus 31, being written for our learning, stands as a reminder for all of us of the importance of sabbath. Although under the New Covenant we are not bound to the observance of any particular day or days, the Sabbath still stands as a reminder that all of God’s people need to take time weekly for worship and rest apart from the daily routines of sustaining our livelihoods. It’s also a reminder that our ultimate trust must be in God’s provision and not our own power to provide for ourselves. But when your entire vocation is to focus exclusively on the work of building up the body of Christ and seeing it built into a holy temple, it may be tempting to think that we may be exempt from the need for sabbath

cana-nazareth-btahny-jerusalem-etc-321
Cornerstones of the Temple Constructed by Herod

rest.

Many years ago after just starting out in pastoral ministry in the United Methodist  Church I had to attend a mandatory stewardship seminar. I remember one of the speakers there practically bragging about not ever taking a day off. Everyday he engaged in some type of work geared toward growing his church. Many may have admired this minister for his work ethic and determination, but he really needed to be challenged to trust God and to entrust and trust the laity with more. I saw this same pastor a couple of years later and it seemed that his physical health had deteriorated considerably.

The Duke Clergy Health initiative has shown that the health and overall well-being of pastors is not very good on average. Lack of rest and relaxation is surely a major reason. So a lot of emphasis has rightly been placed on sabbath time for pastors. One reason may be because laity don’t see the work that pastors do as real work. Some may see the end product of a lot of prayer and preparation, a sermon during a worship service as about all there really is to it. Hence the old joke that pastors only work one hour one day a week. But any one sermon is the result of several hours of preparation and countless hours of thinking and prayer. And the thought process is hard to turn off. So when physically it doesn’t seem like the pastor is doing much, there is still a tremendous amount of work going on mentally. There’s also a battle raging spiritually as the forces of the evil one will be hard at work in attacking God’s messenger who is in preparation to deliver God’s word.

There’s also a battle raging during the delivery of a message. That’s is why the ministry of preaching and teaching needs to be bathed in prayer by the pastor and the congregation. Preachers often feel exhausted after delivering a sermon. It may be that they wrestled demons all night and in the early hours of the morning before delivering what they prayed would be a word from God. Sometimes the wrestling match continues during and after the message. Proclaiming the word of God is not easy, just ask Jesus, whose cross stands as a reminder.

I remember one preacher who talked about how he had wrestled with a message all week that he knew was going to be unpopular in his congregation. He knew it would draw a lot of opposition and potentially lead to conflict. After preparing the message he said he talked himself out of actually delivering it, and went with a message that wouldn’t stir up any controversy. As he stepped into the pulpit to preach a woman who was visiting the church for the first time stood up and interrupted the service by speaking in tongues after which she interpreted the message. He said the message she delivered was the gist of the message that he was supposed to deliver that day but chose not to. The interesting thing is this wasn’t a Pentecostal church. It was a Baptist church where no one had ever heard anyone speak in tongues. At any rate, the point is that there is often much more going on behind the scenes when it comes to sermon preparation and delivery. It can be an exhausting battle.

One time a lay person in a church I served preached for me when I was on vacation. He was a devout and faithful Christian, a wonderful leader in the church, and a very good public speaker. He regularly taught an adult Sunday school class. When I got back from vacation I thanked him for preaching for me. He said, “I don’t see how you do this every week. I was absolutely exhausted Sunday afternoon.” Some of the exhaustion comes from the general anxiety of public speaking, but there is much more going on spiritually as well.

But the work of ministry for a pastor involves more than just preaching. Ministry often involves writing as well, which takes a lot of time. This blog article alone will take several hours to complete. There are also the Bible studies and other church functions and activities. Pastors are also the chief administrative officers and leaders of missions and evangelism efforts. Pastors provide counseling for the bereaved and grief stricken, those who are struggling with other emotional issues and relationship problems, and sometimes those who have experienced horrific tragedies. We are with people during some of the most joyful times of their lives, such as weddings and baptisms, but also during their most stressful times: illnesses, job losses, accidents, deaths. Pastors take on some of the stress that their people go through. Some have compared it to second hand smoke that may cause health problems, but in this case it is second hand stress from others in addition to the pastor’s own personal burdens.

I had the joy of performing a wedding for a couple in their early sixties. They were both so blessed and happy to be united in holy matrimony. Less than six weeks later, however, I visited the wife at Duke hospital who was there because of heart problems. As I waited for an elevator I ran into her stressed-out new husband who was just getting off the elevator to go home to get some sleep. We spoke briefly before I went up to pray with his new wife. That night as she lay in the hospital he had a massive heart-attack in his sleep and never woke up. I performed his funeral a couple of days later and spent much time praying and consoling his widow who had been his bride less than six weeks earlier. She was on an emotional roller coaster. I wasn’t exactly on the ride with her, but I was there on the ground joyfully watching her go up, and anxiously and sadly waiting to console her when she came down. We regularly “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

The work of full-time ministry can be misunderstood by laity and clergy. Some might say that ministry is a marathon not a sprint. But ministry, like life in general, is not a marathon either; it’s a pilgrimage. As such, as with any long, slow, arduous journey, it will require regular rest stops along the way. In order to do more, sometimes we have to do less, sometimes nothing at all. Even those of us in full-time ministry need to make time for rest. That can be easier said than done. There are many potential pitfalls and temptations along the way.

One of the challenges with full-time ministry is it can be hard to ever feel like you’re really off. In the back of your mind you know there could be an emergency call out of the blue at any time. And for me at least, moments of inspiration for messages and sermons don’t come on demand only between certain times of the day. It’s hard to shut our minds off, and we’re even encouraged to always be on the lookout for something “that’ll preach.” This feeling of always being on is palpable.

In 2012, after completing my time at Duke Divinity school as a student pastor on loan so to speak from the Western North Carolina Conference to the North Carolina Conference, I was appointed as a provisional elder to a church in the Western NC Conference. The way it worked out that summer there was a week between the clergy moving dates for the two conferences. So I had one week where I wasn’t responsible for either church, the one I had just left or the one I was going to. That week I knew I would not receive a call from either church. Although I was already thinking about my first sermon and even a series of sermons at my new appointment, I could feel the difference of at least a measure of responsibility being lifted from my shoulders for that brief time.

Taking time off is one thing,  but actually being able to relax is another. Clergy need to be able to get more than just time off each week and for vacation. Clergy need to be able to find time to actually relax. There are a couple of things that might help.

One is we need to remember that we are particularly called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not do it all ourselves or even to be involved in it all. Once I had someone say to me that the church ought to organize a team to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. I got the impression that what she meant was that I ought to organize a team to do that. Instead I commended her for the great idea and encouraged her to organize the team. She instantly resisted, but after a little encouragement and a couple of suggestions she warmed up  to the idea. Within a few months she did indeed organize and led a team to help with a Habitat project. She and others grew tremendously and were blessed in being a blessing to the community. We need to entrust and trust laity with the work of ministry and not try to be involved in everything ourselves.

But more than trusting laity we need to trust God. “If it is to be, it’s up to me” should not be our motto. God can handle it if I take time off. The Holy Spirit is at work in every member of the body of Christ and God is more than able. Taking time for Sabbath rest is an act of faith. And the rest aspect of sabbath, just as much as the worship aspect of sabbath, should be practiced as a means of grace. As an act of faith and a disciplined practice, sabbath rest will certainly be a means of grace to strengthen us in our faith in God.

When we do take time to rest and relax we should be aware of temptations that will keep us from actually relaxing and avoid them. For me it can be electronic messages such as work related emails and social media. On my sabbath days, I enjoy and find refreshment in some social media, but I must not allow myself to be drawn into reading articles and engaging in Facebook “discussions” about controversial topics (see http://babylonbee.com/news/local-man-redeeming-time-arguing-facebook-day/). I do enjoy reading online articles and blogs, but I have to intentionally avoid them if I am going to truly relax on my sabbath. I read but I try to only read for my own personal enjoyment and edification. I do also sometimes engage in online “discussions”, but I limit that in general during the week and altogether during my sabbath time. You can easily, before you even realize it, spend a few hours responding to people on Facebook or Twitter, the latter I hardly ever use anyway.

There have been times when I have been taunted and mocked for not responding to someone on social media. But I would rather miss out on time with complete strangers on Facebook than miss out on an opportunity to truly relax and enjoy time with my wife and family. Jesus will still save the world without me sharing my thoughts on everything I come across on social media or hear on the news.

Speaking of news, I still watch the news, but not quite as often as I used to. I have learned that it’s better to spend more time hearing from the Holy Spirit than hearing from the plethora of political pundits on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. I found it best to avoid news altogether during my sabbath time if I really want to relax.

Of course there will sometimes be things that will come up that will interrupt our sabbath time, but we should still make time later in the week or the following week to make up for lost time. If I am unable to take my regular day of sabbath, usually Mondays, I will do my very best to take time another day during the week. This week it will be Friday, Lord willing.

As the writer of Hebrews says, faith is the key to entering into God’s rest (Heb 4:1-13). Ultimately we need to trust God enough to truly rest. Taking sabbath is an act of faith. In faith we come to the one who bids us:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV)

Holy work requires holy rest. We can trust that God will provide us with plenty of both.

Weight Loss and Health: The Physicality of Christian Spirituality

In the late spring of 2010, I began to have some concerning physical symptoms. Occasionally when I would stand up from sitting or turn my head to look behind me I had the sensation of slight dizziness that made it seem like the room was shaking. This didn’t happen often, but I knew that it was probably related to the way I had been overeating. I had some issues with pain in my lower digestive system, like sharp contractions, too that was directly related to how much I had eaten. I knew I was eating way too much and way too often, so I backed off a bit, which did seem to alleviate some of those symptoms. The changes I made, however, were pretty minor.

Later that summer, I had to have a physical checkup for a life insurance policy that we had applied for. That checkup revealed that my blood pressure was too high, and that my cholesterol and triglycerides were well above normal. These findings didn’t allow me to get the preferred status that I had received for a different policy a few years before. It was obvious that I had gained a lot of weight over the past couple of years as well.

At this point I was just a few weeks away from starting my third year in the Masters of Divinity program at Duke. While I was in Divinity school I also pastored a church. With the symptoms I had in the Spring and with the bad report from the physical exam, I knew I needed to make some serious changes. So I committed to eating better the best I knew. Vigorous exercise at least 3 times a week was already part of my weekly routine. I ran a couple of miles each of those days and did a 15 minute routine on the Bowflex that I had at the time. I knew that it was my diet that I had to change.

At first I changed the types of foods that I was eating. I focused on avoiding foods high in fat. I also stopped eating large meals late at night – sometimes I would eat an entire meal before I went to bed after having supper with the family at the regular time. But mainly I focused on changing the types of foods I was eating. The change did help. Fairly quickly I did lose about 20 pounds. When I went for a checkup in mid September that year my vitals were back into the normal range, although still on the upper side of normal. I continued to do the best I knew how, and avoided too much unhealthy food, but it was a struggle. It seemed I had reached a plateau, but I knew there was more I could do.

That fall I decided to participate in a health and wellness program designed for clergy called “Spirited Life“. It was a program done through the Duke Clergy Health Initiative that had been studying clergy health in North Carolina among United Methodists since about 2008. Spirited Life was part of a longitudinal study to test the effectiveness of certain training and practices to improve overall clergy health. Their studies indicated that overall clergy health (physical and mental/emotional) is poorer than the general population of North Carolinians, which isn’t all that great to begin with.

At any rate, in the fall of 2011 I became a participant in the first of a few cohorts of United Methodist pastors to go through the Spirited Life program. The first health screening I received through Spirited Life in November of 2010 revealed that I had regained several pounds since September and had suffered a bit of a setback in terms of my vitals. Full participation in the Spirited Life retreats and seminars began in January of 2011.  Among other things, such as stress management, part of the program included participation in a weight loss program called “Naturally Slim“.  With the knowledge and information I gained from this program I formulated a plan that helped me to lose a lot more weight and achieve an even better level of health.

During Lent that year I committed to giving up sweets altogether with the exception of one small dessert one time per week, mainly on the Sunday feast days. I also committed to not eat any snacks between meals and, according to the advice given in the Naturally Slim program, to only eat meals when I was truly physically hungry. I discovered for me this was only a couple of times a day. At night before bed if I felt a little hungry, I would eat a small handful of plain mixed nuts to take the edge off so I could sleep. By doing these things by Easter (April 24, 2011) I had lost another 25 pounds or so – I got down to 148 pounds.big-cliff-little-cliff

Although I didn’t monitor it closely, from the Spring to early August of 2010 I had probably lost about 10 to 15 pounds to weigh around 195 when I had that checkup for the insurance company. By changing my diet a little more I got down to around 175. In November I went back up a few pounds. By Easter, through the plan that I was faithful to through Lent based on what I learned in Naturally Slim, I weighed 148 pounds and was in much better overall health. When I had my physical later that summer my vitals were all well within the normal range and the doctor thought that I may have lost too much weight and should adjust my diet to gain back a few more pounds. Over the last few years I did gain several pounds back, but, overall I have been able to maintain a much healthier weight.

Through all of the initial weight loss,  I continued my long established exercise routine. The main factor for me was a change in my eating habits. After the Naturally Slim program I didn’t worry so much about the types of foods that I was eating as much as how much and how often I was eating. This is not to say that the former is not important – it is – but the later is arguably more important. That being said, the most important component of my change in diet seemed to be drastically limiting my intake of sweets, including desserts, sodas, sweet snacks, etc. Inspired by my successes, my lay leader at the time also cut way back on sweets and snacks, especially soda, and lost about 60 pounds.

Having sweets more than once or twice a week gets me off track. So I have to really watch it. The other important component was not snaking between meals. My meals usually consist of the foods I have always enjoyed – for me just about anything in terms of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Bread has never been a major part of my diet. I usually only have bread when my meal includes some type of sandwich. My two meals per day, usually around 10:30- 11:00 am and 5:30 pm, are pretty hearty though. Occasionally, such as Sunday morning when I can’t eat lunch until around 1:00 I will have a handful of raw almonds and half a banana so I will have the energy I need to preach and lead worship, etc. Sometimes I may have a larger breakfast, but if I do I don’t eat another full meal until supper. If I need to I may have a small snack like a handful of Almonds and fruit before supper on those days.

Knowing what to do, however, is not the only thing necessary for weight loss and better health. Having the power to do what we know we should do is also important. Overcoming our human desires corrupted by sin and the deceptiveness of our fallen human emotions is easier said than done. Eating is not just a physical act; it also involves our minds and emotions; and it is spiritual as well. Briefly, here are a few things to consider when trying to become physically healthier through eating better.

Christian salvation involves the whole person and the whole person is spirit, soul, and body (see 1 Thess 5:23 for example). Sometimes some Christians think that what they do with and to their bodies is completely irrelevant to their salvation. Some even think that who they are is completely independent of their physical bodies. From the Christian perspective our spirits, souls, and bodies, are each an integral part of who we are. Saint Augustine, although he was influenced by Platonic thought, which tends to view the body as non-essential to who we are as humans, said, “the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man’s very nature” (The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 13).

Final salvation for the Christian happens at the resurrection of the body. The apostle Paul calls this moment for which all of the physical creation longs “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:24 ESV). The ultimate goal of Christian salvation is not to discard the body to live a disembodied life in heaven, but for our bodies to be redeemed to live an rembodied life in a renewed physical creation. And it won’t do to act as if it doesn’t matter what we do with and to our physical bodies now since we will get new bodies in the resurrection. Even now our bodies are sacred space for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and should be respected as such as we seek to glorify God in our bodies ( see 1 Cor 6:19-20).

Likewise neither is human sin purely a spiritual reality. Sin is a spiritual disease that corrupts God given human desires, which manifest within the mental, emotional, bio-chemical, physiological,and social aspects of our embodied existence. In his discussion of sin in Romans 7, Paul’s desperate rhetorical question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:24) is more than a metaphor, but points to the reality that our bodies too have been corrupted by sin. One of the major categories of sin that has been delineated over the centuries into what has been called “The Seven Deadly Sins” is gluttony. Gluttony is a corruption of our natural God-given desire for nourishment to sustain life and health. This is one of the ways that sin manifests itself in human life. As with other corrupted desires we must master it rather than allowing them it master us (see Gen 4:7 in context).

Our whole lives are an interaction between the spiritual, psychological, and physical. We are not spiritual beings who just happen to live in a body for a brief stint on earth. We are physically embodied spiritual beings who are destined to lived physically embodied lives in the New Heaven and Earth forever.

Eating is also an emotional thing. We do eat for pleasure, but pleasure should not be the main reason we eat. We should enjoy food, but the enjoyment should not be the only factor that we consider. We also may eat to soothe our anxieties and relieve stress. Finding comfort in comfort food is obviously not the best way to deal with anxiety. Saint Augustine again said, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (in “Confessions”). We must seek our ultimate comfort in God and in being at peace with the God who made us. We have that peace through Christ Jesus who also delivers us from the fear of all fears, the fear of death (See Rom 5:1; Heb 2:14-15). Emotional eating can lead to enslaving cravings, food addictions and bad habits. We must learn to starve those enslaving cravings and truly feed and nourish our bodies. So we must distinguish between cravings and true hunger. Fasting can help with this. For me fasting for a day or two has also functioned like a reset after I have overindulged. This too is spiritual, psychological, and physiological.  And fasting, along with prayer and many others things, is a means of grace, an intentional Christian practice through which God strengthens us.

Exercise is also an important component.  Don’t be too overwhelmed by the thought of starting an exercise routine. If you are not doing anything now, don’t underestimate the benefit of small beginnings. Do something rather than nothing. Even if it is only walking briskly for 10 minutes at first. Even now my whole exercise routine only takes about 30 minutes. I had to cut back for a while earlier this year because of nerve pain in my lower back, hip, and leg. I’m working my way back up. The pain is gone so I’m running again, so far a mile to a mile and a half. I also do about 50 pushups and 25 pull-ups – I don’t have the Bowflex anymore. I always try to do something. Something is better than nothing. Just walking regularly makes a huge difference.

But we also need to make time for rest. Sometimes something is better than nothing, but there are also times when nothing is better than something. Making time for rest is also an important Christian practice, which just makes good sense for any human being. We call this sabbath; it too is a means of grace. Rest is important because when we are are overworked and under-rested we are more vulnerable to succumbing to cravings. Being overly tired seems to increase the power of unhealthy desires and decrease our power to resist them. So finding time to rest and relax is important.

The good news is that we aren’t left to the mercy of our own will power; we have the mercy and grace of God to relieve our guilt through forgiveness in Christ and to empower us through the Holy Spirit.  Sin of any variety is too strong for us to overcome on our own, but with God all things are possible. The power of God enables us to become and to do what we could never become and do on our own. Yes, we are called to “work out [our] own salvation,” but we do so knowing that as we do “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philip 2:12-13). Truly, we “can do all things through him who strengthens [us]” (Philip 4:13). And the primary way God has chosen to strengthen us is through the means of grace as they are practiced within the body of Christ. The Christian life is meant to be lived out in community. God has placed us within a body of fellow believers through whom he works to strengthen us. We need others as God works through them to challenge us and encourage us. A community living in the means of grace becomes a place where streams of mercy flow freely from the fountain of living waters to bring healing and health, in spirit, soul, and body.