All posts by Cliff Wall

About Cliff Wall

Married, father of five, and pastor and preacher.

On Not Getting Lost in the Calvinism-Arminianism Debates

I’ve been seriously contemplating the relationship between the sovereignty of God and free will off and on since my freshman philosophy class in 1994. Is everything that happens in the universe determined in a strict cause and effect relationship where free choice is a mere illusion, or do humans have a genuine capacity for making choices between competing desires? This issue not only involves theology, but it also comes up in philosophy and science apart from questions concerning God. I had a professor in divinity school who was committed to theological and philosophical determinism. She had us read literature in neuroscience that came to the same deterministic conclusion from a scientific viewpoint. This particular professor’s determinism, however, led her to conclude that God would have to save everyone eventually, because it just wouldn’t be right to condemn people who have no real choice, ironically, even though she considered such a choice to be logically impossible.

In theological circles, nonetheless, the debate is sometimes framed strictly in terms of exegesis—that is, faithful interpretation of Scripture. Calvinists see certain passages as teaching a strict determinism. One such passage is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, which they concealed from their father through outright deceit. After Joseph and his brothers are reconciled and after his brothers express contrition for their sinful actions, Joseph forgives them and says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20 ESV). The typical Calvinist sees in this passage a specific statement regarding God’s sovereign direction over all of the events in this story, including the sinful actions of the brothers. Ultimately they did what they did because of God’s decree.

Arminians, on the other hand, believe that God’s grace gives all humans a measure of freedom to freely choose between competing desires. They point to passages like Deuteronomy 30:19-20, which they see as clearly implying such a libertarian freedom, albeit by God’s grace and not by fallen human nature.

 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Dt 30:19-20 

The number of texts that both sides muster in their defense is immense. Both sides claim that Scripture is the ultimate standard for their position. There are texts that seem to support both positions. But there clearly are others issues at work as well. There are also philosophical issues and logic involved in interpreting those texts and deciding which set of texts should take precedence in terms of interpretation of the other set. And the issue of interpretation of language in general is not a simple one. The following are also some of the things that are helpful to know when trying to understand this incredibly complex theological and philosophical issue.

How does God know what will happen in the future?

  1. The strict determinist says God knows what will happen in the future because he has already predetermined everything that happens ahead of time by his eternal decree. The action and reaction of every human and every molecule (John Piper by way of Charles Spurgeon uses the example of every dust particle) in the universe has been planned in minute detail ahead of time. According to John Calvin, God not only foresaw the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, he decreed it. Not all who would claim the label Calvinist would agree with this entirely, but this is the basic, consistent traditional Calvinist position. God decreed the fall of Adam and the salvation and damnation of every individual thereafter.
  2. The basic Arminian position is that God knows the future because he clearly foresees it ahead of time, but without predetermining every human decision. Being outside of time, in a way mysterious to us, God sees the past, present, and future simultaneously. In his omniscience, he foresees the faith of individuals and elects this class of believers to salvation. This is not based on works righteousness, which Paul clearly distinguishes from faith (i.e. Rom 3:21-31). Election and salvation are by faith. In the case of the former, it is faith foreseen by, but not predetermined by, God. It is not true as is sometimes supposed—often in Arminian circles— that Arminians don’t believe in predestination and election. They do, but have a different understanding of those terms.

Another issue to understand is the different notions of freedom.

  1. It is not true that Calvinists do not believe in free will. They do, but they understand freedom differently. For the strict Calvinist, humans freely choose to do what they want to do. But all humans are ultimately slaves to their desires. The type of freedom envisioned by Calvinists is called “compatibilist freedom.” According to this notion of freedom, humans are free to choose according to their desires. But fallen humans only desire sin and rejection of God. Without God intervening to change their hearts and with the corresponding desires, fallen humans are doomed to damnation. But according to his eternal decree, God chose before the foundation of the world to regenerate some humans unconditionally but chose to leave others unregenerate. Although they could not do otherwise, the non-elect, those doomed to eternal damnation, are justly condemned because they freely choose sin and continued rejection of God’s grace. But again, they freely choose to do what they want to do – but – according to this definition of freedom, they cannot choose otherwise.
  2. Arminians have a libertarian view of freedom. This is the notion that God’s grace enables humans to choose between competing demands to accept or reject God’s grace. For traditional Arminians, this would involve only the limited ability, restored to all by God’s prevenient grace, to accept or reject God’s grace in terms of justification, new birth, and sanctification. As to how exactly the future is clearly present to God without it being predetermined, ultimately this type of freedom is much  more mysterious than the more straightforward compatibilist notion of freedom. That doesn’t make it right. It’s just an acknowledgment that in terms of our ability to comprehend, it is more mysterious to fathom how we would choose between competing desires, if some of those desires are stronger than others. But Scripture does seem to warn and encourage believers to choose between competing desires, as with the passage from Deuteronomy above. But the choice does seem to be limited to receiving God’s gracious help to overcome sinful desires though his power and not our own.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. ~ Gal 5:16-17

Of course, there are many other things to consider. This is one of the most complex and ultimately mysterious issues in all of theology and philosophy. Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only options to consider in terms of Christian theology, and neither of these traditions are monoliths. There’s also Molinism and Open Theism to name two more. The relationship between the knowledge of a sovereign God and human freedom is impossible for us to fully comprehend. Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright argues that both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian debate have probably tried to explain too much. In these debates, it’s also easy to get lost, and not just intellectually.

Faithful Christians committed to the authority of Scripture have come down on different sides of this debate. In my own Methodist tradition, we have the relationship between John Wesley, an Arminian, and George Whitefield, a Calvinist. While their differences did cause some tension between them and interfered with them being able to fully cooperate together in ministry, they both maintained admiration and respect for each other as brothers in Christ. By request of Whitefield himself, John Wesley preached at his funeral service. Today we can see a staunch Calvinist like James White and a committed wesley and whitefieldArminian like Michael Brown debate those issues vigorously while recognizing each other as brothers in Christ and partnering in ministry together in other areas where they share agreement. Whitefield and Wesley did the same, and providentially, in spite of some hindrances, their respective ministries and gifts complemented each other for fruit for the kingdom and the glory of God (Read interview of J.D. Walsh).

This is not to dismiss the need for further dialogue and debate. It’s also not to dismiss the seriousness of the implications over the disagreements. Both sides want to preserve something they see as vital in the way we talk about these things. Calvinists want to preserve 100% of the glory for God in the salvation of souls. Arminians like me don’t see that allowing for a graciously God-given ability just to receive or reject God’s gift for every person detracts from God’s glory, but I  think we can understand the concern. Arminians are also concerned that genuine human responsibility for sin should involve a real possibility for acceptance or rejection of God’s grace. But this is not primarily over a concern about human freedom, but a concern over the character of God. It should be understandable why we would have such concerns.

What does it say about the character of God if he condemns people for sin that he himself predetermined, especially when the Bible says God calls all to repentance and that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:8-10; cf Ezk 18:23, & 33:11)? We believe that when Paul in Romans 11:32 says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all,” the last “all” includes every individual just like the first “all” does. Just as Rom 3:9 says “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” is qualified by the, “no not one” that follows in verse 10, which is a quote from Psalms, so also, no one is excluded from the mercy of God available in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we believe truly all are enabled to accept or reject the mercy of God and thus to be judged accordingly.

I’ve revealed my leanings. At times, however, I’ve leaned in the other direction. I believe Wesley was right to say he was within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism. I believe God has graciously created space for a limited libertarian freedom. Nevertheless, I realize the difficulty of speaking of freedom within a specific set of limited predetermined parameters. It is easy to get lost intellectually in terms of the paradoxes and mystery involved in all of this.

But the worst way to get lost is to think that having the correct theory of how someone gets saved is more important than preaching the Gospel that Jesus saves. As Whitefield put it by employing a quote from John Bradford, “Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.” Calvinists and Arminians, alike, can agree that the call to repentance and the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God available through faith in Jesus Christ is the means God has ordained that will lead to souls being saved. On Calvinist or Arminian terms, God already knows the elect – those who will be saved – and the non-elect, who will not; but we do not know either. And either way, God has called us to preach the Gospel to the world, elect or not. On that, we should be able to agree and work together for the salvation of souls to the glory of God!

For Further Study:

Books:

For Calvinsim (2010) by Michael Horton

Against Calvinsism (2011) by Roger Olson

Why I am Not a Calvinist (2004) by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell

Youtube Debates:

Debate between two Calvinist professors , Bruce Ware and Tom Schreiner, and two Wesleyan scholars, Joe Dongell and Jerry Walls

Michael Brown vs. James White

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Making Sense of the Bible? Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

I watched an hour long talk that Rev. Adam Hamilton gave at a conference of The Uniting Methodists in Dallas a few weeks ago (See HERE). Rev. Hamilton rightly said the controversy over sexuality in the United Methodist Church really comes down to differing views regarding Scripture. He insists that despite claims of conservatives to the contrary he does indeed have a high view of Scripture. As with many terms, however, Hamilton has a different definition than conservatives of what that means. But he does seem convinced that he has the view of Scripture that Jesus and Paul had; he also believes he employs the same method of interpretation that they did. In Scripture Hamilton apparently believes he finds a precedent and a trajectory of interpretation for rejecting the binding authority of some straightforward commands of Scripture in light of new experiences. He places himself in the position of Jesus and Paul and conservative United Methodists in the position of the Pharisees and Judaizers, the latter being those Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised for salvation.

Rev. Hamilton insists that the Pharisees and Judaizers also had a high view of Scripture and were understandably concerned when Paul set aside the clear commands of Scripture regarding circumcision. He believes Paul did this primarily in light of the experience of Gentiles receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit because of which he interpreted Scripture differently so that circumcision was no longer binding. I get the impression that Hamilton believes Paul went in search of a few prooftexts to “theologize” in order to justify his new position.

But from Hamilton’s talk it’s not all that clear that he thinks Paul came to completely Spirit-inspired conclusions. Rather awkwardly and quite arrogantly, he also suggests that Paul could have handled the circumcision question in a more conciliatory way so that more Jews would have remained in and come into the Church. I suppose he would have had the church agree to disagree over the necessity of Gentile circumcision so that some would preach salvation by grace through faith alone, and others would preach salvation by grace through faith plus circumcision. Though it’s hard to see how that would have resolved the confusion and strife rather than intensifying it even further, but …

The problem with Hamilton’s line of reasoning is that it renders much if not all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians to be misguided at best. And what does it say about the actual decision reached by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? It was not an agree to disagree middle way position. Hamilton’s reasoning here also brings Paul’s reasoning in Romans 9-11 into question. There Paul concludes that the Jews by and large as a whole people have not responded to the Gospel because God has allowed a temporary hardening of Israel so the Gentiles could be grafted into the family of Abraham too. According to Paul this was all in fulfillment of Scripture in accordance with the mysterious will of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ~ Romans 11:33 ESV

So according to Adam Hamilton’s reasoning is Romans 9-11 the mysterious wisdom and knowledge of God or the mere rationalization of Paul who should have been more gracious with Judaizers?

At any rate, it’s really not all that clear that the Pharisees and Judaizers actually had a high view of Scripture. Like Adam Hamilton they may have claimed to, but Jesus thought the Pharisees had a higher view of their own traditions that they developed through a poor interpretation of Scripture. Jesus did not chastise the Pharisees for taking the law too seriously; he chastised them for taking their extra-biblical traditions so seriously that they ended up using them to find loop holes around keeping the true spirit and intent of the law.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! ~ Mark 7:5-9

In fact, Jesus said the Pharisees made the word of God—specifically in this case the commandment to honor father and mother—void through their traditions (Mk 7:10-13).

Rev. Hamilton is right that the Bible has to be interpreted, but it should be rightly interpreted on its own terms. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). While Rev. Hamilton sees the apostles simply making a decision to set aside the straightforward commandment regarding circumcision for Gentiles primarily in the light of a new experience, they clearly did not see themselves doing that. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26, which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9:11-12 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture in the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God while remaining Gentiles. Adam Hamilton simply does not fairly represent what actually happened at the Jerusalem council. As Bill Arnold says, “James and the apostles gathered for the Jerusalem Council would have been shocked to learn that some today are suggesting they overturned Mosaic law.” It’s far worse to use the Jerusalem Council as an example for rejecting some of the prohibitions against sexual immorality that very same council commended to be of ongoing significance for Gentile Christians.

As is evident in the letter to the Galatians, Paul did not interpret Scripture prooftext by prooftext; rather he interpreted each text and passage from the wider perspective of the grand narrative of Scripture. This is what John Wesley called the overall tenor of Scripture. Paul identifies the Gospel being preached by Scripture as it records the promise to Abraham that in him “all the nations shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3 as quoted in Gal 3:8). The law of Moses given to Israel was meant to serve that greater promise and blessing, according to Paul (Gal 3:15-29). Israel living in obedience to God’s law was always intended to be a witness to the rest of the nations (Dt 4:5-8). The prophets, as the Jerusalem Council saw, testified to the eventual blessing of the Gentiles that was initially promised to Abraham (Gen 12:3). The mystery was that this would turn out to mean they would be blessed not by becoming Jewish through accepting the symbolic identity markers that set Jews apart from Gentiles; rather they would be welcomed into the covenant family of Abraham while retaining their ethnic identity as Gentiles. Based on Amos 9:11-12 (from the Septuagint–Greek Old Testament), this is the conclusion reached by James, as the spokesperson for the apostles, during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). That’s the same conclusion Paul gives in Galatians and Ephesians. These are very subtle and difficult-to-detect distinctions that the Church saw in Scripture not in spite of it. And it was not without mystery and some paradox.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. ~ Ephesians 3:1-6 (see also Eph 2:11-13)

From what Paul says in Romans it is seems quite evident that he saw by revelation Gentile inclusion among the elect people of God as Gentiles in Scripture not apart from it.

even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” ~ Romans 9:24-26
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. ~ Romans 16:25-27

In light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, Paul and the church saw clearly in those same Scriptures what was once obscure so as to be hidden. These are the incredibly fine and subtle distinctions in the Old Testament Scriptures that became clear in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hypothetically speaking, even if Paul was mistaken in his interpretation of the Old Testament, he certainly didn’t see himself as declaring certain Scripture no longer relevant simply in light of a new experience as Adam Hamilton suggests. By not recognizing these distinctions and by not making reasonable distinctions himself, Rev. Hamilton, does not “make sense” of the Bible; he makes mincemeat of the Bible. And as a result he ends up in the awkward position of criticizing the apostle Paul and arrogantly suggesting that he might have handled things better himself in addition to using as Gentile inclusion as an analogy that is incredibly dubious at best. Moreover, there is no way that he can search the law and prophets to find anything that would even come close to a hint that homosexuality should at some point be accepted by the Church; there is certainly nothing in the New Testament remotely close to that. As I have repeatedly shown even some of the best liberal scholars admit this. Gentile inclusion is a horrible analogy for accepting behavior that the Bible consistently and unequivocally condemns.

From Rev. Hamilton’s talk it seems quite clear to me that he is more interested in rationalizing behavior that the Old and New Testaments both clearly condemn as immoral. He fails to rightly handle the word of truth. He conflates rather than making proper distinctions; he creates false dichotomies; he argues against straw men, and even seems to set up Scripture itself as a straw man, all while claiming a high view of Scripture.

During one portion of his talk he quotes a slew of verses out of context from the Old Testament where the death penalty is commanded such as the one in Deuteronomy about stoning a disobedient son (Dt 21:18-21; see my effort here to put that passage in perspective). He also brings up the so-called genocide of the Canaanites in Joshua that really wasn’t (the language of total annihilation was an ancient near eastern idiom common among the Canaanites themselves and the Egyptians) to make the God described in those passages look as bad as possible. The Bible itself makes clear that the language of total annihilation of the Canaanites was hyperbolic because the Canaanites continued to maintain a strong presence and a persistently negative influence on Israel, as well as being a military threat, as the full context of Joshua and Judges makes clear (see also Paul Copan & Matthew Flanngan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God—Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004 to really “make sense” of these texts). We also might want to consider that our modern culture that by and large stands by as unborn children are slaughtered by the thousands daily mainly for reasons of personal convenience, may not really hold the moral high ground it seems to think it does.

Some people, nonetheless, wrongly prooftext to defend Biblical authority; others prooftext to undermine it. Likewise some resort to wooden literalism to bolster the authority of Scripture, others again to undermine it. Hamilton is obviously engaged in the latter as he suggests that certain Old Testament passages do not reflect the God revealed in Jesus. He posits those texts tell us more about those primitive human’s misunderstanding of what God is like rather than what God is really like. But there is more than one way to play the misleading game that Adam Hamilton likes to play with Scripture.

I could easily pull sayings of Jesus out of context to make him seem overly harsh and vindictive and then compare them to prooftexts from the Old Testament that make the God revealed therein seem more gracious and merciful.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ~ Matt 13:41-42
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ ~ Mark 9:42-48

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me. ~ Luke 19:27 (Cf Luke 20:9-18)
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. ~ Revelation 2:20-23

I could then take these prooftexts and compare them to the way God is described as being so merciful and compassionate in Psalm 103 and the book of Jonah, for example, both of which are based on the revelation of God given in Exodus 34:6, and say this Jesus doesn’t reflect the merciful and compassionate God revealed in Moses and the Prophets. Either way it is a deceptive exercise. The God revealed in Jesus is none other than the God whose full character as a God of mercy and justice is revealed in Exodus 34:6 and 7.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Exodus 34:6-7

Instead of pitting prooftext against prooftext and throwing our hands up and saying we all just pick and choose, which seems to be Adam Hamilton’s definition of “interpretation,” we should seek to understand each verse, passage, and story within the overall framework of the grand narrative we find in the overall sweep of the Bible. We should also work hard to make the proper distinctions to the best of our ability. There are difficult passages and things hard for us to understand, but as Augustine and John Wesley taught we should seek to understand the difficult passages in light of the plethora of the clear. Adam Hamilton, however, seems determined to use the difficult verses to muddy the waters of the clear passages of Scripture in order to exert self-will over the authority of Scripture as an objective standard. As Peter warned there are some who will twist the hard-to-understand portions of Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Adam Hamilton, albeit for different reasons, quite clearly seems to be employing tactics similar to the teachers that Saint Irenaeus wrote against. Regarding these teachers, whom Irenaeus says they also boasted that they were “correctors of the apostles,” Irenaeus said:

But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition. (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

The tradition of which Irenaeus’ rivals boasted included a tradition of Biblical interpretation where they felt free to correct the writings of the apostles and to declare certain portions of Scripture to be a false representation of the the Supreme God of their worldview and of that God’s actual will. They pitted certain passages of Scripture against others and developed at least an implicit unofficial canon within the canon. Marcion, however, was more explicit with his deconstruction project. In all cases they failed to make the proper distinctions in context, and failed to rightly interpret the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). They brought a foreign worldview to Scripture and twisted and distorted Scripture to fit their worldview rather than adjusting their worldview to Scripture.

We can, however, detect how best to make the proper distinctions through clues within the Bible itself. For example, Jesus spoke about the “weightier” or more important matters of Scripture that the Pharisees neglected in favor of lesser issues (Matt 23:23). In the Old Testament law we can detect what are weightier matters through the differing degrees of punishment we find in the penalties that were to be imposed under the Old Covenant. We also see this reflected in Jesus’ statements that there would be greater degrees of punishment in the judgement for some towns over others for their rejection of the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 10:5-15).

Based in 2 Corinthians 3, Saint Augustine detected a distinction between symbolic laws for Israel that were types and signs of a greater spiritual reality that we enjoy through faith in Jesus Christ to whom they pointed. As Paul said, as Christians Christ is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7), for example. Through faith in Christ we keep the spirit of Passover. We also need to make distinctions between literal and figurative language. In some cases it is more subtle than others—there are dozens and dozens of different types of figures of speech, all of which point to something very real. And while considering that the distinctions we find in Article 6 of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law in the Old Testament are not absolute with no overlap, we should seek to understand the nuanced distinctions to which they point and stop trying to find loop holes around the moral prohibitions that are unequivocally stated in both Testaments. There are plenty of legitimate distinctions to make and we can make them in a principled fashion as difficult as it may be. We can do better than pretending like we all just pick and choose more or less arbitrarily.

Article VI — Of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Rather than doing the admittedly difficult work of making the distinctions that we need to make, Adam Hamilton works hard to stir up as much doubt and confusion as he can to justify rejecting the straightforward command of Scripture regarding homosexual practice. I know from personal interactions with Adam that he will throw everything he can, including the kitchen sink, at you to ward off criticism. It would take more than a long blog article to deal with every objection he throws out.

The bottom line is this: his arguments clearly show that he has a view of Scripture that is not compatible with our own doctrinal standards. His view of Scripture may be higher than Richard Dawkins’, but that doesn’t make it a high view. In his talk Adam also went to great lengths to distance Scripture itself from the concept of “the word of God.” Ironically he used Scripture to argue that “the word of God” is something more than Scripture itself. With that general statement I actually agree, but I disagree that Scripture as a whole is something far less than the “word of God.” According to Rev. Hamilton’s view only some of Scripture is the inspired word of God. He reduces Scripture to a medium through which God may speak, rather than seeing it as a trustworthy and reliable record of how God has spoken first through his prophets and finally through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Whereas for the apostles and Christians in Acts Scripture was used to judge the authenticity of the verbal proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 17:11), Hamilton sits in judgement over Scripture according to another standard, the spirit of this postmodern age. Ironically he also uses 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to try to justify his view, but not without trying to bring its meaning into doubt too.

The context of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is pertinent. There Paul warns Timothy about times of apostasy when many “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). It’s in the context of warning about apostasy and rebellion against the truth that Paul tells Timothy,

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. ~ 2 Timothy 3:14-17

In the face of those today who are arguing that some Scripture actually may have never been inspired by God, that’s still a much needed admonition for Christians today. Do not be deceived. We will not be judged by what we are able to know with certainty, but by what we are willing or not willing to believe with conviction. People can make seemingly plausible arguments for anything. You can use uncertain

light through gray clouds

ty of knowledge as an excuse for doubt and unbelief; or you can see it as an invitation to faith. Indeed, “for we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Perhaps God is inviting us out of the cloud of gray and into the light.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

Summer 2018: Full and Blessed

The last couple of weeks of June seemed to go by at barely the pace of a commando crawl. The anticipation of Christi going into labor almost made time stand still. But the past several weeks since Benjamin was born on June 26th have been a blur.

To say this has been a busy and hectic summer would be an understatement. As we awaited the arrival of Benjamin, we also threw a birthday party for Catherine, who turned 3 on June 22. Ian turned 15 on the 20th; my birthday came on the 21st. Our oldest child, Grace, had to be dropped off or picked up at “Governor’s School” in Raleigh thrice, beginning on Father’s Day. Thankfully Christi’s Mom and Dad could take her at the beginning as we anticipated the arrival of Grace’s baby brother at any moment. Our son Ian had basketball practice three days a week for their team summer camp at Guildford College all through June. And I had to work out the logistics of getting my own mother enrolled in a community based senior care program called PACE, which started for her in June too.

I took Anna, Silas, and Catherine to Vacation Bible School each evening the third week of June with the anxiety of knowing Christi could go into labor at any moment. After the first day of VBS, Catherine ended up with a bad rash. Apparently she’s allergic to the sun screen I sprayed on the kids before they enjoyed the waters slides and bouncy houses that we had to kick off VBS. We ended up in the ER for that on Tuesday. Thankfully, Catherine responded quickly to treatments.

Delivering Benjamin at home with a midwife went very smoothly once Christi finally went into labor—if you can call 20 plus hours of labor smooth! It was definitely smoother for me than it was for my wife. Nevertheless, it was an awesome experience as Christi eventually delivered baby Benjamin in the bathtub, although that wasn’t initially her plan. The contrast between the excruciating pain just prior to delivery to the exhilarating joy immediately afterwards was amazing to watch. Christi and Benjamin have both been doing great ever since.

family of 8

The day after Benjamin arrived I took Ian to the DMV to get his learner’s permit. Thankfully, Christi’s mother was staying with us to help out. A few days later we had to have a new washing machine delivered. The old one had started leaking oil onto the floor and our clothes. The day of delivery Lowe’s showed up a lot earlier than we had been told. I was rocking Benjamin and watching our semi-potty trained—note the emphasis on semi—three year old daughter, Catherine, and our four year old son, Silas. While I was waiting for the baby bottle to warm up, and trying to keep Benjamin content so he wouldn’t cry and wake his exhausted mama from a much needed nap, Catherine ran up to me and said, “Daddy I have to go potty!” She had actually already gone … in her pants! It was number 2! And Christi’s mother was gone to see my brother-in-law.

Benjamin was on the verge of wailing; but somehow I kept him content in my left arm while I tended to Catherine with my right. I took Catherine to the toilet and carefully flipped “the contents” of her pants into the toilet. I then removed her soiled clothes, cleaned her up with a wash cloth, and put clean clothes on her. I did all of this with my right hand as I held the baby semi-content with my left. After washing my hand, I retrieved the warm bottle of milk and began feeding Benjamin just before he would have erupted into window-rattling wailing that would have surely awakened my sleeping beauty.

All was well, or so I thought. Then … the doorbell rang! It was Lowe’s with our washer. So much for Christi’s beauty sleep! Despite my heroic efforts—I do have a blue “Super Dad T-Shirt with a red cape—to keep Benjamin content, the doorbell woke her up. Thankfully, she was still able to sleep for a few hours later that afternoon.

In addition to the needs of my family, I have preached every Sunday but one since Benjamin was born, as well as tending to the other responsibilities of pastoral ministry, some expected, others not. I also preached a four-night Spirit-filled revival the third week of July, the week after Anna and Ian returned from a week-long youth mission trip. I had agreed to preach the revival series about ten months prior. And among many other things, last week I conducted the funeral service for a church member that cancer took from us way too soon. But Pam faced death with faith in Jesus and the power of resurrection. She was an inspiration!

This summer I’ve also been proofreading and editing an almost 240 page manuscript that I may try to get published. I’ve enjoyed reading Saint Augustine’s classic work simply called Teaching Christianity too.On July 20th I wrote a blog article to dispel some myths regarding Jesus’ prayer in John 17; during which time I was also engaged in some debate on social media with some of the most prominent and powerful ministers in the United Methodist Church. For that and other obvious reasons this hasn’t been the most restful and relaxing summer, but we have had a lot of fun and experienced an abundance joy.

It’s been an event-filled, full summer! Exhilarating and exhausting. Hectic and hilarious. Trying and triumphant. Above all, because of the grace of God, the hope of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, blessed. Thank you, Lord!

That They May Be One? The Misuse of John 17

John 17 records a prayer of Jesus in which he prays that his disciples, present and future, “may be one” (v. 11 & 20-21). Those who are determined to liberalize the church’s official stance on sexual morality and marriage through incremental steps if necessary repeatedly quote this short phrase removed from the context to convince those with traditional leanings that unity through compromise is the supreme Christian virtue. The idea is that Jesus is praying for his disciples to be united around some vague agree-to-disagree principle of absolute tolerance when it comes certain moral issues. They want the church to believe that the most virtuous thing we can do is to allow contradictory and competing visions of sexual holiness to be officially sanctioned in the church in order to be a witness to the world. But the phrase that immediately follows Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:11 reveals the folly of that misinterpretation, as does the context of the rest of the prayer.

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, EVEN AS WE ARE ONE. ~ John 17:11 ESV (emphasis mine of course)

Note the qualifying phrase for the unity for which Jesus prays for his disciples, “even as we are one.” The oneness for which Jesus prays is the kind of oneness that he has with the Father. Of course this is not in terms of their essential being. But it is the oneness they share in terms of will, purpose, and mission. In that regard Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). He said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). Moreover he said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). You get the picture? This is a picture of perfect submission to the will of God, not an agree-to-disagree moment on contradictory and competing visions of what is morally right while clumsily still trying to work together rather than against each other. Trinity-Symbols

Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in perfect obedience. In his human nature he resisted the excruciating temptation to exalt his will above the Father’s even in the face of crucifixion. Remember how intensely Jesus prayed in the garden? ““Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). What kind of unity does this sound like to you that Jesus is praying for? It’s certainly not a unity at the expense of truth and holiness that would result in trying to work together in mission with contradictory messages about what God expects of disciples!

In John 17, Jesus also prayed that the Father would keep his disciples in his name (v. 11). That could mean guard them by the power of your name; it could also mean keep them under the authority of your name. The latter would still have the effect of the former meaning. Hence Jesus’ prayer that they also be sanctified in the truth, which he says is God’s word.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.And for their sake I consecrate myself,that they also may be sanctified in truth. ~ John 17:17-19

In light of what Jesus says about Scripture in John 5:30-47, it is clear that Jesus viewed Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) as the word and revealed will of God, which was in complete harmony with his own message and mission. He says to the religious leaders who doubted him, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words” (John 5:46-47). It is believing God’s word, written and incarnate, that sanctifies us. To sanctify means to set apart by making holy. Holiness sets us apart from the ways of a corrupt and fallen world that cares more about the fulfilling the lust of the flesh than the will of God (1 John 2:15-17). We cannot have the unity for which Jesus prayed apart from the holiness that comes from believing the truth that is God’s word!

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  ~ John 17:20-23

This perfect oneness that Jesus prayed for? Does that really sound like the kind of “unity” that the progressive Uniting Methodists want to impose on the whole denomination? In the name of postmodern relativism they have made “unity” apart from a common and complementary vision of holiness, truth, and Scripture the supreme virtue. And to justify it they proof-text out of context one phrase from John 17. That is not what Jesus prayed for; and it is certainly not what he died for.

Many commentators have been struck by the parallels between John 1 & 13 and Philippians 2:5-11. There are also some parallels with John 17 and the unity there that Jesus prayed for. Paul puts it this way:

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:1-11

When we admit that we are of two minds—and we are—we might also want to consider that we might not have the same love or the unity of the Spirit for which Jesus prayed. And how then can we “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”? (Romans 15:6). I DO want to be in the same Church with my progressive colleagues. I just don’t want to be in the same church on their relativistic, latitudinarian terms—”speculative” or “practical,” both of which John Wesley called a curse, not a blessing (Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” . – III: 2 & 3). I want to be a part of a Church that seeks and prays for the kind of unity for which Jesus actually prayed. All are truly welcome on those terms.

At the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15, the Church did not come up with some agree-to-disagree compromise on whether circumcision was necessary for salvation in addition to faith in Christ. Through the guidance of the Spirit and searching the Scriptures they came to an agreement that it was not necessary. They did not decide to preach salvation by grace through faith alone AND salvation through faith plus circumcision. The Church came to an agreement and preached the same message. Galatians makes it clear that a compromised and confused message was no longer tolerable in the Church. How much more important is it for us to hold a common faith and share a common witness regarding sexual morality when that same council commended the same? Yet progressives have also twisted this passage to support their campaign.

I’ll close with another oft misused passage on unity with more context than progressives will give. See how it complements what Jesus actually prayed for in John 17. Jesus invites us into the unity of the Trinity, not a nominal unity forged in the name of relativism through the ways of a wayward world.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, 

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:1-16

Why We Shouldn’t Unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament

Rev. Andy Stanley, one of the most influential preachers in America and pastor of one the largest churches, recently made some statements regarding the Bible that rightly raised some serious concerns. He said Christians need to “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament, which he sees as “a house of cards” that keeps many sincere seekers from accepting the Christian faith. In trying to explain the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, he argued that the Apostles were not only unhitching the church from the Old Testament, but also from the entire worldview found in it. Rev. Stanley further argued that Christianity is not based on a text (i.e. the Bible), but on an event alone, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, he insisted that the Church derived certain, but lesser requirements for Gentiles only for the sake of unity, not because of anything the Old Testament says. One of those requirements for Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality, Stanley further insisted should not be defined in any way from the Old Testament. Instead, he argued, the apostle Paul’s own letters reveal that he only defined sexual immorality according to a vague principle of treating others the way you want to be treated. In other words, Stanley argues that Paul’s definition of sexual immorality is not informed at all by the law (Torah). Stanley’s message makes it clear that this also includes the Ten Commandments. In fact, he claims the Old Testament should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

Initially I thought Rev. Stanley had probably misspoken and was misunderstood. When I actually listened to his message myself, however, it was worse than I suspected (See his message HERE). It is a very confused message to say the least, and one of the worst cases of eisegesis (reading things into the Bible that are not there) I’ve ever heard. Rev. Stanley wants to separate the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the law altogether. His argument seems to be that the New Covenant does not overlap with the Old in any way.

Here is the problem. Before and after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) it is obvious that the apostles and Christian evangelists preach the Gospel from the law and the prophets, not apart from the law and the prophets (see also Galatians 3:8 and context). The “apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42) was rooted and grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures. It wasn’t their own ideas that they developed based on an experience with the resurrected Jesus apart from Scripture. The apostles teaching was derived from the Scriptures, the law, the psalms, and the prophets. And they didn’t discover these things simply upon their own reflection; Jesus himself taught them these things beginning on the first day of his own resurrection.

We must remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Acts shows the continuing ministry of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church, the body of Christ on earth. Although Rev. Stanley argues that the resurrection of Jesus alone is the foundation of Christianity, Jesus himself taught in the parable of the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus, that if people will “not hear Moses (i.e. Torah—the law—the first five book of the Bible) and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). It is also worth noting that shortly before the telling of this parable, Luke has Jesus saying, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus also says:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ~ Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Even a cursory reading of the four Gospels reveals that Jesus saw what he was doing as a fulfillment—not a nullification— of the Scriptures, again what we call the Old Testament today. Significantly on the very first day of the resurrection, Jesus leads his disciples in a Bible study through the law, the psalms, and the prophets to shown them how he had fulfilled them in his death and resurrection (see Luke 24). Despite the claims of Andy Stanley, nowhere in the New Testament are we given the idea that the resurrection alone, apart from the Scriptures, is the foundation of the Christian faith. Hence Paul’s reminder that the teaching handed down by the apostles, who were eye witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, was “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 emphasis mine). 

The New Covenant was a promise of the law and the Prophets fulfilled by Christ (Compare Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28). The apostles and evangelists in Acts in their preaching and teaching showed how the promises of the law and prophets were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. You see this in Peter’s first sermon as he repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament (Acts 2). You certainly see it in Stephen’s sermon for which he is martyred (Acts 7). You see it in the ministry of Philip as well. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked him about Isaiah 53, Luke says “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Although Philip began his testimony about the good news of Jesus from Isaiah 53, you can be sure his message didn’t get stuck there. The Spirit of Christ would have certainly inspired him to show the Ethiopian how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Scriptures as Jesus himself did on the first day he was raised from the dead (again see Luke 24). The apostle Paul also preached and taught this way, even after the Jerusalem Council where the supposed “unhitching” occurred.

Acts 17:2-3 indicates that is was Paul’s habitual practice to reason “from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, who I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'”
This loudly echoes the resurrected Jesus’ very own message on the first Easter Sunday to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and later that day to his disciples gathered behind closed doors back in Jerusalem (See specifically Luke 24:25-27; 44-49). Later in Acts 17 Luke commends to Bereans for searching the Scriptures to confirm for themselves the teaching of Paul and Silas. The obvious reason they searched the Scriptures is because it was the apostles’ custom of prove from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. Apollos also preached from the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28). Again the preaching of the early church, the doctrine of the apostles, was the word of God as it pertained to the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of resurrection for all God’s people in the future. It was not, however, detached from the Scriptures. Their message came directly from Scripture. In fact Paul, while under interrogation, tells King Agrippa,

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. ~ Acts 26:22-23 (Emphasis mine)

Acts concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome. There Paul continued “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). It certainly doesn’t sound like the church had “unhitched” itself from the Old Testament, much less the entire Old Testament worldview as Stanley claims. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26 which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. I know that this still leaves lingering questions about how expectations might have been different for Jewish Christians and the ongoing significance of the Jewish ceremonial law for them. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from unhitching the church from the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God.

Much more could be said here, but the greater details of the implications of the Jerusalem Council are beyond the scope of what I want to do with this article. The point is that it is a little bit unhinged to try to unhitch the church from the Old Testament. It is also a bit unhinged to try to base Christian faith on the event of the resurrection alone apart from the Scripture. Jesus didn’t do that; neither did the apostles. The resurrection, they insist, is to be understood in the context of the precepts and promises found in the Law of Moses and the Prophets. The meaning and the significance of the resurrection must be derived from the context of the written revelation found in the Bible, including the Old Testament. It is also unwise to argue that the term sexual immorality should not be informed by the Old Testament as Stanley does. It is even more unwise to argue that the Old Testament should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

The fact is the New Testament quotes and alludes to specific Old Testament passages repeatedly and voluminously. Take for example 1 Peter’s call for holiness (I Peter 1:13-16), which Peter justifies by quoting Leviticus 11:44, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Consider as well Paul’s use of Israel’s negative example in the wilderness after the exodus to warn the predominantly Gentile Corinthian church about the dangers of idolatry and sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). He specifically says, “Now, these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (10:6). Rev. Stanley even insisted that the Ten Commandments should not inform any behavior in the church. He believes the New Covenant that Jesus established is “completely detached” from the Old Testament worldview. He believes Jesus came to establish a completely new worldview. In other words, for Stanley there is no continuity at all between the Old and New Covenants. This is just simply wrong! Again think about what Jesus actually said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.       Matthew 5:17-20

Think too about what Paul says about Christian love in Romans 13.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.  Romans 13:8-10

Paul’s understanding of love is obviously informed by the Ten Commandments. He also clearly thought the Old Testament was not only inspired, which Stanley concedes, but Paul also thought it was sufficient to make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and to equip God’s people “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-16). And contrary to the claims of Andy Stanley, Paul’s understanding of sexual immorality is also informed by the holiness code (Leviticus 18) and the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 19:1-12) . Whereas Stanley seems to want to understand sexual immorality in the New Testament apart from anything in the Old Testament and boil it down to a vague principle that would seem to allow anyone to interpret it anyway they want so long as they “treat others the way they want to be treated,” Paul actually defines it much more strictly. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-10 Paul indicates that the way to avoid sexual immorality if one cannot control their sexual passions is to get married. And the context indicates that Paul viewed marriage as being between a man and a woman. Moreover, as Paul warns about sexual immorality throughout 1 Corinthians 5-6, it is obvious that his understanding of its definition is informed by the Levitical holiness code and the Ten Commandments. Adultery is included in his warning in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and his term for homosexual behavior is a term coined directly from two words in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. This fact is even clearer in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 where it is obvious that his vice list, which includes that same coined term for homosexual practice, arsenokoites, is specifically informed by the law.

Suffice it to say, the New Covenant should not be understood to be completely detached from the Old Covenant. It is true that the foundation of the New Covenant is not the Mosaic Covenant. Its foundation is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Yet, although there is discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, there is obviously still much continuity. New implies that there would be some differences. But the moral laws of God summed up in the Ten Commandments, which themselves are summed up in the two great commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), are still in effect. It is true that it is the spirit of the law not the letter that is most important, but the spirit of the law as it applies to the New Covenant family of God still has a great deal of continuity with the letter.

One  way to resolve the confusion is to remember what the promise of the New Covenant actually was. The promise of the New Covenant was that God’s people would be forgiven, given a new heart and a new spirit along with God’s very own Spirit, and his laws would be written on their hearts so they could obey them (see again Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28). Jesus fulfilled that promise, and it will ultimately be fulfilled in its entirety in God’s people in the resurrection (See Ezekiel 37). But even now through faith in Christ and the gift of the Spirit we experience a glorious foretaste of the world to come.unhithced shipwreck It’s certainly not the mind of the Spirit that would lead us to unhitch or detach ourselves from God’s law. For Christians to unhitch  themselves from the Old Testament is a sure fire way to make “shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19; also see context!)

 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ~  Romans 8:1-11 

 

 

Simon the Sorcerer: Losing the Prosperity Gospel; Finding the Mind of Christ

Acts 8 tells the story of Samaritans receiving the word of God, and eventually the Holy Spirit once the apostles, Peter and John, came to pray for them. Luke, the author of Acts, the sequel to his Gospel, tells us that the Samaritans had been under the spell, literally, of a sorcerer named Simon. Luke tells us that Simon practiced magic. The type of magic here referred to doesn’t mean pulling off tricks by slight of hand like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Simon was into spells and incantations of the variety that would bring people fortune and success, perhaps also practices that would bring misfortune to one’s rivals (i.e. think of voodoo). His craft probably also included invoking the favor of powerful spiritual beings, known in the ancient world as daemon, the Greek word from which we get the English word demon. Then and even with these types of practices today, these beings were not necessarily all viewed as evil among pagans, although some were.

Simon was a practicing pagan. His craft brought him great prestige and fame among the Samaritans. I’m sure he promised to bring the people of Samaria great fortune, but it was he himself who prospered the most. Yet when he heard the preaching of the Christian  evangelist Philip, and saw the sign and wonders that Philip performed, Acts 8:13 tells us that, even Simon himself believed and was baptized. Now the great Baptist preacher Adrian Rogers insisted here that at this point Simon was really an unbelieving believer. That is he professed faith, but for the wrong reasons. As the story later reveals he witnessed a power greater than what he already had and he wanted it for himself seemingly to only enhance his already great prestige and personal glory.

Peter and John came to pray for the Samaritans to also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The reason they were delayed in receiving the Spirit is not stated, but it might be so there would be apostolic witness to this momentous event as the promise of Acts 1:8 and Acts 2:39 was fulfilled. This was the case when the Gentiles, Cornelius and his household, would also later receive the Spirit just as the apostles had on the day of Pentecost (Acts 10-11). Nonetheless, when Simon say how the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands of the apostles, his true mindset and state of heart was revealed.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

Acts 8:18-24 ESV

Simon was still thinking like a pagan, not like Christ. For the pagan in the ancient world, religion was centered on attracting the favor of the more powerful forces in the universe. It was focused on personal or collective fortune and success, similar to the ways people still go through certain rituals to bring themselves good luck even today—like the kid on a baseball team I helped coach who refused to wash his pants! Ancient pagan religion was not connected to morality. That was left to the political leaders and philosophers to establish in the name of societal order and stability. It is a historically unique and essential revelation of the Bible that connected religion to morality, love of God and neighbor (see John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths). The Bible, in other words, connects sacrifice and mercy, with priority given to the latter, as it is especially revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus. Simon, even though he had been baptized, still did not have the mind of Christ. Hence, Peter’s harsh rebuke, which reminds me of the harsh rebuke that Peter himself at one time had received from Jesus (Mark 8:33; Matt 16:23). Simon was still only thinking about himself and how this profound power of the Holy Spirit could benefit him.

Jesus actually revealed the difference between the typical pagan mindset and the mindset that his followers should have. He warned the crowds and his disciples not to be concerned about their own personal wealth. He told them not to be consumed by seeking the fulfillment of their own desires, but to center their lives on the will of God. After warning them about covetousness (i.e. greed), Jesus says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!  And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Luke 12:22-31  (see also Matt 6:19-34)

Jesus here, and in Matthew 6, says the nations, the Gentiles, those outside the covenant community of God, are consumed by the fulfillment of their own desires. But his followers should be focused on the will of God. Simon was still thinking like the rich fool that Jesus warned about in a parable (Luke 12:13-21). He still thought it was all about him, that the gift of the Holy Spirit was for his own personal benefit. Although it seems he responds positively to Peter’s rebuke and truly repents, his name would later be used in the tradition of the church to describe corrupt church leaders who used their office in the church for their own personal gain; a practice that came to be known as “Simony.”

What Simon needed to understand is that “Spirit-led leaders use the gift of power for the good of others, not for their own aggrandizement. Spirit-prompted leaders die to self for the good of others” (a quote by Scott McKnight retweeted from Seedbed by a friend). Being filled with the Holy Spirit and finding our place to use our gifts in the body of Christ—which is what all believers should do, not just clergy—is not for us to make people marvel at our own so-called greatness, but to marvel at the greatness of God.

People still often come into the church only because of what may be in it for them. Sometimes people go into full-time ministry for their own self-aggrandizement, motivated by a desire for power, acclaim, and/or wealth. Recently there was another televangelist who said God wanted his supporters to send in donations for him to buy a new $54 million dollar private jet, even though he apparently already has three! He private-jetpromotes what is called the “prosperity gospel” and “word of faith” theology. The latter is the idea that if you think positively and make verbal confessions in line with your positive thinking you can receive from God whatever it is you want. As the proponents of this type of theology say, you “believe God for whatever it is you want.” So this preacher, Jesse Duplantis, is “believing God for” a new private jet that will be bought with the donations of his followers. The “word of faith,” positive thinking and confession theology, is similar to what is taught in modern new age circles, although they call it “the law of attraction.” The problem, either way, is it keeps people focused on the very things Jesus says not to be concerned about, laying up treasures on earth rather than being rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21).

Sometimes people respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they come because of the attention it draws to themselves, rather than the glory it brings to God. I ministered to a young man one time who was in jail. There he sought any means possible to better his life. He professed faith in Christ, but immediately began to talk about going into ministry and perhaps even writing a book to “share his testimony.” I saw the dollar signs in his eyes; his mother even told him that she was disgusted by the pride of which he reeked. Latter he admitted that he was seeking attention for the wrong reasons and lying to everyone. We had a very candid conversation about it. The beginning of Christian maturity is when we realize it’s not all about us.

Sometimes people profess faith in Christ without receiving the mind of Christ. The Son of God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:1-18), used not his great power to be served, but to serve. His greatness was revealed most fully and clearly in his humility. After years of being steeped in a self-centered view of faith myself, I finally lost all the faith I had in the power of my own faith. I also lost my mind. The good news is I found the mind of Christ in the second chapter of Philippians.

  So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.       Philippians 2:1-11

On Twenty Years of Marriage

May 23rd this year makes twenty years that Christi and I have been married. We got married in a whirlwind and we’re still twirling through life together after all these years. The day we were married there was a severe thunderstorm with tornadoes. The storm almost blew Christi’s grandparents and uncle off the road as they drove to the wedding. It also knocked out the power at the historic old train depot where we held the wedding and reception in Grifton, NC.

whirlwind of love

We got married by candle light in the sweltering heat and smothering humidity of eastern North Carolina. At our reception on the outside deck we danced our first dance to Don Williams’ “Years from Now.” The music resounded from a battery powered boom box as we twirled around together. Twenty years and six children—#6 is due in a few weeks!— later, we’re still dancing (mostly figuratively sometimes sillily); and we’re still loving each other.

There have been plenty of other storms. We made it through Hurricane Floyd together in 1999. We’ve also made it through many severe emotional storms when the high pressure of her OCD met the low pressure of my ADD. There have also been the storms where my high and unrealistic expectations, or hers, met the lows of reality. Some of those storms shook the very foundations of our otherwise happy home.

We’ve had lots and lots of good times; but we’ve had our fair share of bad times too. Sometimes the latter has been because of our bad choices and selfishness. Sometimes because of difficult circumstances that were out of our control. We’ve been through periods of great frustration, anxiety, spine-crushing pressure, sadness, and deep depression. In Christi’s case the latter has been clinical and required hospitalization a couple of times. Sometimes I was understanding and compassionate; sometimes I was resentful and selfish.

At times we have both hurt each other deeply. Sometimes we haven’t been able to stand each other. Now, thankfully, we mostly just understand and forgive each other. In many ways we have both changed so much for the better. In other ways not so much. But we choose to love each other anyway. And love her I do; I know she loves me too.

The negative aspects of life and people have a way of blinding us to the blessings right in front of our eyes. Sometimes our own insecurities mislead us to expect to be loved perfectly by one who is flawed and stumbles because of sin in many different ways. There is only One who loves us perfectly in all our imperfections. Through discovering that perfect love, we learn to love those who are sometimes, sometimes a lot of the time, unlovable. We also learn to be thankful for the good things of which there are many, none of which we should take for granted.

The day of our wedding I toasted my new wife with a quote from Proverbs: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (18:22). Christi, isn’t the best thing in my life; the love of God in Christ Jesus is. But Christi is a good wife. In fact she is a great wife, and because of that I am blessed beyond measure, more than I deserve.
There are seven reasons why we are forever joined together. The first is because we said I do and I will. The other reasons are our six wonderful children. Our six children, one for each of the active days of God’s work in creation (Genesis 1), remind us of our sharing in the ongoing work of creation, and the new creation as we make disciples of Jesus Christ. I told Christi when I first asked her to marry me that I believed God brought us together. There have been times we both doubted it. But we don’t doubt it today.

In love or out, we choose to act like we love each other every day. By act I don’t mean pretend; I mean we act on our decision to love. There’s a reason that love and faithfulness are virtually synonymous in the Bible. Love is much more than a fleeting and fluttering, sometimes faltering emotion. Love is a decision of the will to love because of, and sometimes, by the grace of God, in spite of.

Christi is one of the greatest blessings I have ever received. She is an amazing mother and she is an incredible wife, both in ways great and small. We got married in a whirlwind. We’ve held on to each other as God has held us up through all the storms. We’re still twirling through life together and loving each other every day. I thank the Lord, who is able to calm the storms around us and in us, and through the rushing mighty wind of the Holy Spirit is able to blow new life and love into us.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV

Cliff and Christi (1)