Archive for April, 2009

Troubling

April 26, 2009

Read this. And then read Revelation 13:11-15.

There is some ambiguity in the word “antichrist.”  The Greek prefix “anti” can mean “against,” as we often use it.  But it can also mean “instead of.”  In truth, the two ideas are really not that far apart.  The antichrist is against Christ specifically because he attempts to replace him. 

I can’t help but find it a little ironic that only days after Obama himself, speaking at Georgetown University, stood in front of a covered image of Jesus, now an artist plans to unveil a portrait of Obama with outstretched arms and a crown of thorns on his head.

And so, whether willingly or not, Obama continues to play the role of surrogate messiah to deluded souls on the left wing of society.  At the very least (and unlike Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:14-15), Obama has not expended much energy to quell the idolatry that is promoted in his name.  And that is probably what is most troubling about him.

Capitalism Needs No Justification

April 21, 2009

Some good thoughts here from Douglas Wilson on why the burden of proof for ethical justification falls on those who would promote heavy government intervention in the economy as opposed to a free market system.  Here’s a quote:

A laissez-faire grin directed at Smith does not have to be explained the same way that beating Murphy with a stick needs to be explained. Coercion always needs to be explained. Minding your own business does not need to be.

Might Makes Right

April 16, 2009

I want to defend the thesis that might makes right.  Normally, we recoil in horror from that kind of statement because we see in it no way to check tyrrannical rule.  Those who are strongest gain power and use it to oppress the weak, and so far as the “might makes right” philosophy is concerned, they are ethically justified because, after all, might makes right.  The strength of the strong is their ethical justification. 

I am not referring to that kind of scenario when I say that might makes right.  I am referring to a greater might and a greater right.  I am referring to God and his relationship to what is right and wrong.  There are two propositions that I deny about God’s relationship to ethics:

(1) God is righteous because he conforms to a standard outside of himself.

(2) Right and wrong are determined by God’s will arbitrarily with no essential connection to his being. 

The first proposition places ethics above God; the second proposition divorces God’s will from his character.  Neither are correct.  That which is right derives its “rightness” from God’s own character, so that there is no standard above God, and yet what is right is not determined arbitrarily.  But here is the fundamental truth about God’s character: God’s supreme regard is for himself; therefore, that which is right is defined as right in relation to him. 

Think about it for a moment.  We all know it is wrong to murder.  But why?  Secular humanists recognize, at least to some degree, the value of a human being, and their ethical reflection generally flows from that.  Thus, whatever promotes the well-being of human beings (unborn human beings excepted) is right, and that which violates or harms a human being is wrong.  Thus, murder is wrong, but certain sexual acts between consenting adults is perfectly fine, so long as no other human being is violated or harmed. 

But believers know there is more to the story than that.  Believers know that the supreme reference point for all ethical reflection is God himself.  Murder is wrong because it assaults a creature made in God’s image who reflects God’s glory.   Consenting adults are not the only parties to take into account when considering the morality of certain sexual arrangements; the will and design of the Creator must be considered supreme. 

Why is God the supreme reference point for what is right and wrong?  Because he is God.  As such, he is exalted above us.  He transcends our limitations.  His essence is the standard of all that is right and good precisely because he is the self-existent, sovereign Lord of all.  Might truly makes right, in this sense. 

So why do we recoil at the idea that might makes right when applied to the human sphere of ethics?  It is because we recognize that only God is God, and therefore any human being who usurps the divine prerogative has committed high treason, the greatest of all sins and blasphemies.  The person who claims the right to determine right from wrong out of his own power has already removed God as central reference point and has appointed himself to that position.  What we recognize as so horribly wrong in this kind of situation is not the fact that might makes right; it is, rather, that someone whose might is infinitesimal compared to God’s is trying to assert himself over God.  The problem is not so much the idea that might makes right; it is the idea that inferior might makes right. 

This, I submit, is precisely the problem with abortion.  The woman who chooses to kill the human being inside her womb has made a decision based on the ethical consideration that she is the primary reference point.  What benefits her the most is the ethical course of action.  And why is that?  Because she is more physically and mentally developed than the child.  She has a life history to speak of.  She has the power to assert her will.  The baby, lacking these qualities and the strength to withstand (or even protest) her attacks, has no ethical standing.  The woman’s might makes her right.  Yet ironically enough, the one who is mightiest in this situation has already conferred value on the unborn child, and he will not allow that blood to be spilled in vain.  His might will, one day, make all things right.

Free Bible Commentaries Online!

April 14, 2009

I have added a new link to freebiblecommentaries.org, a ministry of Dr. Bob Utley, formerly of East Texas Baptist University.

In my years at ETBU I took Dr. Utley (whom I know as “Dr. Bob”) for four classes: Old Testament Survey II, Hermeneutics I, Hermeneutics II, and Preaching.  I also had the privilege of traveling with him to Brazil for an evangelistic crusade in 2002.  He is truly a man of God.  His passion for the Bible, for the gospel, for the church, and for the lost is evident in everything that he does.  A few years ago he resigned from university teaching in order to put all of his energy into teaching ordinary church members how to interpret the Bible for themselves. 

I recommend his commentaries to you.  They are something of a unique genre, in that they are more interactive than most commentaries.  They provide a wealth of helpful information (as commentaries should), but they are self-consciously designed to teach readers the skill of Bible interpretation as opposed to dependence on commentaries.  Dr. Bob’s passion is not to tell you what you should think about the Bible; it is to teach you how to come to your own sound conclusions about what the Bible teaches. 

This website is a gift to the church.  I encourage you all to bookmark it and refer to it often.

The Problem with Christus Victor

April 10, 2009

This Resurrection Sunday I will be preaching on Luke’s account of the resurrection (Luke 24:1-53).  In my study of this passage I have noticed that the most prominent theme that emerges is the necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This event was foretold by the Scriptures and by Jesus himself.  This was God’s plan.  This was the way it had to be.  It could not have happened any other way.

The necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection is set in contrast to the preconceived notions (and consequent faulty expectations) of the women, of the eleven, and of the rest of the disciples (including the two on the road to Emmaus).  All of these groups expected Jesus to stay dead.  The women carried spices to the tomb, expecting to find a dead body and finish the task of proper burial.  The eleven (and the others with them) heard the report from the women and thought they were just being hysterical.  Even Peter, having seen the empty tomb for himself, did not come to a full understanding of what had happened.  And the two on the road to Emmaus revealed their unbelief when talking to the stranger about Jesus of Nazareth, saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The implication is that, of course, now that he has been crucified, that hope is gone.

God planned it this way from eternity.  The Scriptures foretold it.  Jesus himself predicted it.  How could those who followed Jesus be so dull?  How could the truth have gone completely over their heads?  They missed the truth because their presuppositions were faulty.  They expected a conqueror who would overthrow the Romans.  What they got was a suffering servant, a sacrifice for their own sins.  They conceived of redemption in nationalistic categories, categories that cast Israel in the role of victim in need of liberation from the oppressor.  But the more fundamental truth about their need is that they were sinners alienated from God and under the threat of his coming judgment.  They expected a Christus Victor, but what they got was true atonement.  And they weren’t ready for that. 

Christus Victor is a biblical theme.  I cannot deny that, nor do I want to deny it.  Jesus Christ has defeated the devil and his forces by means of his death resurrection.  He has disarmed the strong man and liberated his people.  But he has done so precisely by putting away their sins.  And if Christus Victor depends on the putting away of sins, then it cannot itself be the means by which sins are put away.  Sins are wiped away by means of a blood sacrifice that pays the penalty for sin.  God’s righteous decree demands death for sin, and by sentencing his innocent Son to death, God’s justice has been upheld even as he acquits those who deserve death. 

The gospel addresses us primarily as sinners, not as victims.  The women and the disciples had that reversed, and they missed the truth as a result.  They conceived of redemption primarily as the change of a social/political situation.  They minimized their own need for forgiveness and thus had no categories for a suffering messiah. 

My concern is that leftist evangelicals are doing the same thing today.  Their primary concerns do not relate to the problem that God stands against us in his wrath.  They tend to see our deepest problem as a social/political problem in which evil has invaded God’s good creation, and God is the primary protagonist standing on our side to fight the battle and overcome it.  Redemption is viewed primarily as the liberation of victims.  It is no surprise that Christus Victor is the atonement theory of choice, generally speaking, for this side of the spectrum.  But this is a truncated gospel because it does not address the fundamental problem: we have offended God and now stand under his wrath.  We need more than a liberator.  We need a sacrifice, a mediator, a substitute, a ransom.  If it is not tethered to a robust doctrine of penal substitution, Christus Victor is just another variation of the faulty presupposition that made Jesus’ followers unable to see the truth about Easter.

If we do not see ourselves primarily as sinners in need of forgiveness, we will not grasp the gospel.  If we do not relinquish the desire to justify ourselves, we will never receive the divine verdict of justification.  May God give us all a deeper sense of our sin and a deeper love for the gospel this Sunday.

Re-run: Justification and Daily Life

April 8, 2009

I have decided that, in order to keep things moving here, I will occasionally post a re-run of a previous post that I think is worth reading again.  This one was originally posted in May of 2006. 

“Justification by faith” is a phrase, derived largely from the Apostle Paul, that has played an enormous role in church history. It has formed the center of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. Its importance to one’s understanding of the gospel is massive.

Growing up at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas, I formed a basic understanding of justification, although I don’t recall ever hearing the word “justification” used all that much. I understood it to mean, simply, “being made right with God.” Of course, that is a correct understanding, but there is so much more depth to the term. My pastor correctly taught that we are made right with God by faith alone, and not by our own efforts. We are righteous before God because of the cross, not because we can in any way merit righteousness.

All that made sense to me, as far as matters of salvation and eternity were concerned. But not until recent years did I begin to understand how justification impacts not only our vision of eternity, but also our day-to-day lives. If you think about it, our lives are dominated by the question of justification. This is because human life is always lived before others. We constantly strive to justify ourselves–our existence and our accomplishments–in the eyes of men. Oswald Bayer puts it this way:

Our whole life histories are placed before a permanent tribunal in which we act as accused, prosecutor, and judge. Throughout our lives we continually seek to find excuses for the fact that we live as we do, that we are existent rather than nonexistent, and that we are as we are and not something different.

This is the search for justification. We want other people to like us. The politician’s television advertisements are aimed at justifying him before voters. The teenager who dresses like all of her friends longs for their approval, for justification before the court of her peers. The entertainer craves the attention and approval of the masses, which fills his life with meaning and justifies his existence. The man returning to his hometown for the 10-year high school reunion can’t wait to show all of his friends how well he is doing; he longs for justification of himself, his life, and the paths he has chosen.

Everyday of our lives, we are asked to account for the fact that we exist and that we are who we are. Everyday of our lives, we comply and struggle for endless justifications. As social beings, we live in the company of others and constantly desire their approval.

There is something healthy in this. The fact that it often makes us strive to do better, even to be better, keeps society functioning. Virtually every motivational speaker I heard growing up in the Texas public school system had the same message: you have potential; work hard and achieve success. Certainly, that is a good and necessary message. But it is not the whole truth.

What happens when we fail? What if we work hard, but circumstances beyond our control nullify our hard work and leave our potential for success in shambles? Or what if we work hard and stumble at one point, at just the point that destroys it all? In my calling, that of the ministry, one moral lapse may compromise everything. On the other hand, what if obedience to God requires that we relinquish justification before others? If Scripture is any guide (and it is!), then this is sure to happen frequently. The world stands in antithesis to the holy will of God. Therefore, to do God’s will often puts us at odds with the expectations of the world and merits the world’s disapproval. Many Christians have been condemned before courts (both literally and metaphorically speaking) because they stood for the truth of the gospel. They relinquished justification before others and sought only to please God.

And then, of course, there is the raw truth that as fallen people, we may simply make a mess of things. I believe Jesus’ interaction with the self-righteous Pharisees often pressed home the truth that in order to find life, joy, peace, and abundance, we must first bump up against the hard fact that we are all royally messed up. Read Luke 7:36-50 and see if there can be any other explanation.

What happens when, in our endless search for justifications, we fail to justify ourselves before others for any of the above reasons? This is where the motivational speakers can’t help us. Everything they tell us about success, about happiness, about making this life count, hangs on our achievements. If our achievements do not materialize, the success gurus leave us with nothing. But justification by faith holds us up in a sea of despair.

The doctrine of justification by faith is, essentially, this: we are declared righteous before God because of something that has happened completely outside of us. Jesus Christ the righteous died in the place of the guilty and was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead. Faith connects us to him. Because he is righteous before God, we are counted righteous in him and for his sake alone, even though we are not, in ourselves, righteous. We are sinful rebels against God who stand forgiven and accepted into his family because God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours and wipes away our sin in his cross. Nothing we do affects this reality. It is completely outside of us, outside our accomplishments and failures, outside all of our efforts to justify ourselves in the endless ways that we do. If God justifies us for Christ’s sake alone, then nothing we do or fail to do can impact this, the ultimate justification.

Who decides what really “counts” in this universe? God does. This is his universe. And God has declared that all who are in Christ “count”. He has justified all who receive righteousness by faith. Paul speaks of it as the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5). How can a righteous Judge justify the ungodly, acquit the guilty? Only through the cross of Christ, for it is in the cross that God condemned sin while still receiving sinners. Only through the substitutionary death of Christ do we stand justified before God.

I constantly evaluate myself on a number of levels: am I a good husband, a good father, a good student, a good pastor? I certainly hope that I am, by the grace of God. But what happens if I stumble at any of these points (and I have stumbled at all of them, though some more than others)? What happens if my struggling church eventually goes under, and I am left wondering if I have failed as a leader? Do I consider my call invalidated and my life’s work wasted? Or do I rest in the justifying verdict that has already been pronounced over me in the court of Heaven? God has already given me value for the sake of Christ alone. Therefore, whether I have all the world or none of it, I have more wealth than all the success gurus could ever promise. I have been justified–justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone–and nothing will ever change that. My success story was written in blood 2,000 years ago on a hill called Golgotha and chiseled on the stone rolled back from an empty tomb. And though I may seem a fool by standards of worldly success, I will glorify the God who magnifies his grace by passing over human distinctions and imputing the righteousness of his Son to ungodly fools like me:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Are We in 1977?

April 5, 2009

In light of the fact that North Korea seems bent on developing the capability to send a nuclear missile our way, President Obama has returned to the liberal fantasy world of the Cold War era, the fantasy world in which our unilateral efforts at nuclear disarmament will somehow make crazy dictators not want to kill us anymore. 

What was the President doing during the 1980’s when we already had this debate and his side lost…oh, and as a result a Reagan-led USA won the Cold War because the Soviets toppled their own economy by trying to keep up with us militarily?  Did he miss that chapter in history? 

Perhaps the most naive thing the President has said lately is, “I’m not naive.” 

Some Thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:11-15

April 1, 2009

Every so often I come back around to think on controversial subjects.  I reacquaint myself with the arguments on both sides, reevaluate them, and often end up strengthening my understanding of my own view, although on some occasions I have reversed course (I recently changed my mind about the gifts of prophecy and tongues, for example). 

I have recently had a thought in mind about the key biblical passage on women in ministry, but I have not gotten around to posting it until now.  That passage is 1 Timothy 2:11-15:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

There are basically three ways to approach this passage.  With two approaches you can end up with women pastors, and with the other approach you cannot.  The first approach would be the liberal approach, one that does not accept the authority of Scripture.  Most liberal exegetes look at this passage, conclude that the author (not Paul, according to them) restricted authoritative teaching offices to men, and then say, “Now isn’t that silly?”  And they go on ordaining women to the pastorate.  The passage has no bearing on church practice in that case.

The other two approaches accept the authority of the text as God’s Word but differ as to its applicability to today.  Complementarians like myself see the flow of Paul’s argument, particularly the appeal to transcultural realities like creation and the Fall, as sealing the case for the transcultural applicability of this command.  Women are not to be ordained to the pastorate at any time because this transgresses God’s design in creation, a design that, as much as it conflicts with modern sensibilities, is nevertheless for our good and for his glory. 

Egalitarians, on the other hand, argue that Paul’s restriction on women here is an ad hoc prohibition, one designed to curtail the spread of false doctrine that had particularly influenced the women in Ephesus at this time (see Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991], 52-65 for this approach).  Paul’s point, so this approach argues, is not to give a command to the church for all time, but rather it is to give a command that applies to a particular situation and that would not necessarily apply when the situation has changed.  Therefore, given the changed setting of our cultural situation, where the same kind of false teaching is not rampant among women, we need not obey Scripture to the letter in this case.  The ordination of women is perfectly compatible with Paul’s intention in this passage, so the argument goes. 

The thought that has been occurring to me more recently is how ironic it is that those who want to protect the ordination of women have to turn Paul into a sexist in order to do it.  Let me explain. 

If a youth minister arrives at his Wednesday evening youth gathering to find the young people listening to a hip-hop song on the church’s CD player, a song that is full of crude and degrading language, the first thing he will do, if he is a youth minister worth his salt, is have the music turned off.  But let’s say the song happens to be performed by a black hip-hop artist.  What if the youth minister then says to the group, “From now on, there will be no more listening to the music of black people on church property.  I do not permit any of you to play any music performed by a black person at church gatherings.”  Surely we would conclude that the youth minister’s action was tinged with a bit of racism.  After all, he has, on the basis of one bad example, branded a whole class of people with a moral taint solely because they share similar physical characteristics with that one bad example.  He has used a sledge hammer where a scalpel is needed.  The damage he has done is likely worse than that of the original problem itself. 

If egalitarians who respect the authority of Scripture are right, then Paul has done the same thing.  No one is going to argue that all the women in Ephesus and only the women in Ephesus were guilty of being seduced by this false teaching (witness two men who are mentioned by name in 1 Timothy 1:20).  So, if the egalitarians are right, we must conclude that Paul chose to address a problem among some women, as well as among some men, by giving a blanket prohibition against all women teaching and exercising authority.  If that is not sexism, I don’t know what is. 

As they say in rural Kentucky, “That dog won’t hunt.”

(Okay, I have never actually heard anyone in rural Kentucky say that, but it seems quite plausible that somebody does say it.)