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Category Archives: Theology

Is Christianity a Religion, part 1

Is Christianity a religion?

Not surprisingly, my answer here is going to depend almost entirely by what we mean by the term religion, for its dictionary definition and its meaning in popular usage are often at odds with one another. My trusty American Heritage dictionary offers the following relevant meanings: “1a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe…. 3. a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” I suspect that most of the controversy here centers on the word practices: in what sense are certain practices essential to being a Christian?

People have always looked to rituals, rites, and ceremonies as a way to gain favor with God, and not wholly without reason: the Bible itself gives us chapter after chapter (and even entire books, like Leviticus) that detail the proper procedures for sacrifices and feasts days and the like. It simply cannot be asserted, by anyone who takes the Bible seriously, that the Christian God is opposed in principle to rituals. God clearly institutes a religion, in every sense of the word, in the Old Testament.

And yet it is also the case that we, as people, have a tendency to misunderstand the proper use of religion in this sense. We are tempted to think that, if we do a ritual properly, we can somehow manipulate God into looking on us with favor. For this reason, we find God regularly rebuking his people, even in the Old Testament when such sacrifices were still demanded. For instance, God says this in Psalm 50:

I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.

God’s point is clear: none of our religious ceremonies are intrinsically valuable, because the God of the Bible has no needs. There is nothing that we can do that bring us the favor of God; this precisely Paul’s point when he insists that if God’s favor “is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).

This is still true in the New Testament age in which we live: the religious acts which Jesus ordained (baptism and the Table) don’t work magically, as though if by doing them correctly, we obtain right standing with God. Salvation is not by works, even religious works.

This is half of my answer. Next week, I intend to argue that spirituality apart from biblical religion is also inadequate.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Conservatism, Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 4

I’ve spent the last couple of essays unpacking the significance of Paul’s summary of the gospel: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In the last essay, I attempted to explain why, biblically, we need someone to die for our sins. Scripture is clear on this: sin merits eternal punishment from God. Accepting this truth is not easy on our pride, but it is essential to embracing the gospel. As I often remind our church: the good news is only as good as the bad news is bad. Jesus didn’t die to save us from bad complexions, flat tires, empty bank accounts, and faulty hot water heaters. A person who delivers us from such things deserves our gratitude. Jesus, however, demands our worship, because he has done far more than provide a more comfortable life—he has laid down his life as a ransom for ours, opening the way to eternal life.

What, then, are we to do with this news? The short answer is that we are to believe this news, but the short answer might be misleading. We have already seen that while the gospel message includes historical truth, it is not only historical truth. That is to say, it is not sufficient merely to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead. To paraphrase James: the devils even believe that much!

No, the kind of truths that we’re discussing here are the kinds of truths that you cannot believe in such a simple sense. It is rather like believing that the building that you’re sitting in is on fire; to believe something like that, and to believe it for real, demands some kind of response. Likewise, one who truly believes that Jesus died for his sins cannot remain unchanged.

Let me suggest two ways that change should be evident in the life of a person who actually believes the gospel. The first we’ve already mentioned: one who believes the gospel will become a worshiper of Jesus. There is a substantial difference between being generally favorable to Jesus (something many would profess) and embracing Jesus as your God. Jesus demands worship, and worshiping Jesus reshapes all our other priorities.

The second consequence flows from the first: those who truly believe that Jesus died for their sins begin to forsake sin. Paul says it this way: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1–2).

Even though I’ve been brief, it should be apparent that believing the gospel introduces radical change in a person’s life.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 3

The core of the gospel message is this: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Paul is making two kinds of claims in this verse. One is historical: Jesus of Nazareth truly did live and die (and rise!). The other is doctrinal: Jesus died for our sins. Both of these claims are vital to the good news; the doctrinal claim tells us why the historical claim should matter to us. The reality is that scores of ancient men were executed on Roman crosses; Jesus’s death is significant only because of the meaning that Scripture ascribes to it.

But the explanation seems to require its own explanation: why would we ever need someone to die for our sins? To be told that Jesus died for our sins seems to solve a problem that few would acknowledge having. Most folks are happy to concede that they are not perfect. However, we also tend to think that, in terms of general morality, we are about average—if not a little above average. (Although most people can’t, by definition, be above average.) We are quick to insist that there are some people who really are truly awful, and in comparison, we tend to think we’re not all that bad. Certainly, our faults don’t deserve death!

Unfortunately for us, comparing ourselves with other people sets the bar far too low (see 2 Corinthians 10:12). The standard that God holds us to is infinitely more demanding: we must “be holy in all [our] conduct”; we must “be holy as I am holy,” God tells us (1 Peter 1:14–16). Why would God hold us to such an impossible standard?

God demands perfection because, if he didn’t, he would be implying that he really isn’t all that important. Think about it this way: God says that we are to love him with our whole being. And yet instead of loving God, we tend to value other things higher than we value him: money, sensual pleasures, and a thousand other things. If God simply overlooks what we’ve done, he would be agreeing with us that he is not all that important. God would, in essence, be denying that he is God!

But God doesn’t do this. Rather, he says things like, “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:6).

It is for this reason that sin (which is nothing other than having other gods before God) demands death in God’s universe. Death is fair; Paul calls it the wages of sin, and he reminds us, very straightforwardly, there no one is righteous (Romans 3:10).

It is only when we acknowledge that we merit punishment from God that the gospel message becomes good news to us. If I deserve death, but Jesus died for my sins, perhaps there is a way that I can avoid the damnation I deserve. That will be our topic next week.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Pastoral, Theology

 

The Christian Message, part 2

The message of Christianity (a message that Paul insists is of first importance in 1 Corinthians 15:3) is the gospel. We noted last week that, at minimum, the gospel makes historical claims: Jesus of Nazareth died and was buried, and he arose and was seen by witnesses. Paul strongly emphasizes these historical claims; according to him, if Jesus did not actually arise from the dead, there is no point at all to being a Christian. In fact, he says that if there is no resurrection, Christians should be pitied more than anybody else, for they have utterly wasted their lives.

Now why would he write that? Surely, even if Christianity is not historically or literally true, many millions of people derive comfort from Christian churches, both from participation in the familiar rituals and from relationships with other believers. The teachings of Jesus would still give us sound moral guidance, wouldn’t they? So why would Paul insist that Christianity is worthless without the literal, historical resurrection of Jesus?

The fact that some are ready to disagree with Paul indicates that the common Christianity of our day is not the same message that Paul proclaimed. And the chief difference is one of doctrine.

You see, Paul did not merely say that Jesus died, but that Jesus died for our sins. In addition, he twice notes that Jesus’s death and resurrection were according to the Scriptures. This is to say, then, that it is not sufficient to believe merely that Jesus died and rose again; the reason that Jesus died and the meaning of his resurrection are also vital to the gospel.

Jesus’s death, according to Paul, has something to do with our sins. Now, sin is an unpopular word in our day, but it is central to the Bible’s message. One confession of faith puts it this way: we are all “sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.” This is certainly no flattering description, but it is one supported by Scripture (to choose only two of many passages: Romans 1:20 and Ephesians 2:1–3).

So we are sinners. And to connect our discussion back to the gospel, here is the key biblical idea: “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that, if we are sinners, we have merited eternal condemnation. This death is rightfully ours.

If you understand this, you are now in position to see why the gospel is good news; you can see the value in Paul’s proclamation that Jesus died for our sins. And in next week’s essay, we’ll see why that truth is the very core of the Christian message.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2013 in Newspaper Article, Theology

 

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Finding the moral of the story

One well-intentioned but misguided method of reading (and teaching) the Bible is this: we read Bible stories as though they are essentially fables, designed for us to learn the moral of the story so we can be better people (or, perhaps, better Christians). This kind of reading, while not unprofitable, inclines us all too often to miss the point of the biblical author.

Let me offer what is, in my mind, one clear example of this kind of exegesis. Some very memorable Bible stories come from the book of Judges; Samson and Gideon are both first-ballot members of the Flannelgraph Hall of Fame. But the overall point of the book of Judges is not to highlight great models of heroic faith; rather, the author is recounting the dark days in Israel in which everyone did what was right in his own eyes because there was no king in Israel. Thus, if we teach the story of Gideon primarily to admonish us to greater obedience in faith (or to make some such other immediate application), we have failed to understand the point that the author was trying to make: Israel needs a king. Ultimately, we need a King. We miss the point of the stories if we fail to relate them to the story of the Bible.

That story, the story of the Bible, is the story of God’s working to establish a Kingdom for his Son.

My point here is not to dissuade us from looking for and preaching practical applications from narrative passages; rather, I want to admonish us all to do so only secondarily, after we give careful attention to the point of the narrative within the bigger story of God’s ultimate purposes.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Theology

 

Sam Gipp and NIV-onlyism

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never engaged KJV-onlyism on this blog, and I don’t intend to make it anything like a regular topic. However, I recently stumbled upon this article from Sam Gipp, and decided that it was interesting enough to merit a remark or two.

If you didn’t click the link, the gist of Gipp’s claim is this: if all KJV-only proponents were to announce that they had become NIV-only, those who object to KJV-onlyism would still be unsatisfied. This dissatisfaction indicates (to Gipp) that his opponents object not merely the supposed perfection of the King James, but are inclined to reject any book as God’s revealed, unquestionable authority.

But, don’t believe me! Go ask one. Say to an opponent of the King James Bible, “If tomorrow all the King James Bible believers recanted their belief and said it wasn’t perfect, would that be good?” See what they say. Then add, “They all said they threw out their King James Bibles because they had come to realize that it’s actually the New International Version that is the perfect Word of God without error. What do you think of that?” See what they say!

Their hatred isn’t for us. It’s for the One who put a perfect Bible on this earth and forced them into such a tight spot!

In reply, this is nothing like a good argument, but it’s a new one (at least to me), and so has that going for it. I’ve heard opponents of KJV-onlyism joke about becoming NIV-only, but I’ve never heard a KJV-only proponent suggest it as a basis for his defense of the King James.

It seems to me that Gipp’s claim is very similar to those who insist that doctors really aren’t interested in a cure for cancer, because should such a cure be found, the medical industry would lose so much money (in research funding, current extensive treatments, etc.). While one could make this case sound plausible economically, it is only believable if you are convinced that a good majority of doctors are truly sub-human, merciless creatures. Even the most robust belief in total depravity hardly underwrites such cynicism.

A similar maliciousness is necessary to believe that all of those doing textual criticism are not really interested in determining the original readings at all, but are instead interested only in preserving doubt about the text (presumably for the sake of employment, book deals, etc.). Perhaps such folks do exist; Bart Ehrman comes to mind in this regard. But, then, no one is suggesting that Ehrman’s pursuit of textual criticism (at least on the popular level) has anything to do with finding the original text in the first place.

So Gipp has offered us a question: “What if we became NIV-only?” I’m offering a counter-question: “What (non-question-begging) reason do have for thinking that those studying textual criticism have no real interest in finding the original, authoritative text?”

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2011 in Fundamentalism, Theology

 

The books opened, and every idle word

Our cultural distance from the biblical authors often complicates our full appreciation of their message. For example, because we have essentially no experience of what it is like to have a king, the biblical claim that Christ is a king is one that fails to fully register with us. Only when we come to realize how deeply we (I speak here primarily of Americans) hate kings can we begin to consider the radical authority of Jesus, and how counter-cultural the Christian message is at this point.

Sometimes, however, cultural shifts may make certain biblical images more accessible; the recent debacle involving Rep. Anthony Weiner, I suggest, signals one such shift.

Revelation 20:12
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.

The pervasiveness/invasiveness of electronic media is, to a great degree, creating a society in which, if not every idle word, at least a great many of our idle words are recorded and can be opened in judgment against us.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2011 in Society, Theology

 

Three Sunday reflections

First
In Sunday School this morning, we were discussing Ephesians 4. This is likely no great exegetical insight, but I believe it fits the flow of thought of the passage. Verse 13 sets this as a mark of a rightly ordered church: “…until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

It is that last expression that is difficult, at least to me. Its difficulty lies in its being very abstract. What hit me, as we were reading the passage, is that Paul may have been using a much more concrete image. The entire surrounding passage is considering the church from the metaphor of Christ’s body; the idea here, then, seems to be this: the standard for the maturity of the church is that it, as a body, has grown up to the point that it fits its head, which is Christ.

Second
Pastor Matt Morrell offered a brilliant modern application of one of Jesus’s parables. The man who plans to build greater barns to hold his bounteous crop, he said, is like the man who builds the two-car garage, and then the shed in the back, and then rents a storage unit down the road.

Third
In that same passage, I was convicted by Luke 12:32: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Jesus’s admonition in the following verses is this: if you really believe that your Father is good, and that it is his delight to give you the kingdom, you would be generous, giving away your possessions to the poor. Thus, our miserliness is our public confession that we disbelieve in the kindness of our Father.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2011 in Theology

 

God’s aseity and conservatism

A number of months ago, I presented a paper at a Conservative Worship Symposium organized by Scott Aniol of Religious Affections Ministries. Scott has been posting my talk in bits and pieces over at his site, but for those interested in such things, both the audio of my talk and my notes are available from the CWS website.

The gist of my presentation is as follows: God’s aseity guarantees the existence of non-relative truth, in that God’s knowledge does not depend on anything outside himself. I argue that a meaningful parallel exists between God’s knowledge and God’s affections; this is, I think, perhaps a novel contribution to the discussion of the impassibility of God. If I am right, God has “feelings” (or better, valuations) about all of his creation that are the standard for our feelings about all of creation, just as God’s knowledge is the standard for ours.

If this is correct, there is good reason to disbelieve that beauty is in the eye of beholder.

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2010 in Music, Theology, Worship

 

On losing faith, in the ministry

This article, on five men in ministry who have given up belief in God (in any normal sense of the term), is interesting for all sorts of reasons. At the very least, it shows that Machen’s antithesis between Christianity and liberalism is alive and well in modern American churches. The faith-destroying role of seminary in these men’s lives is also striking, as is the seeming assumption that scholarship cannot be genuine and conservative.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2010 in Society, Theology