In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell wrote about the neurological phenomenon of “thin-slicing”–the ability of humans to make remarkably accurate snap judgments about people, objects, and situations based on very little information. Thin-slicing, Gladwell says, helps us navigate daily life by equipping us to recognize friends and acquaintances, avoid danger (like visiting run-down buildings or eating spoiled food), and generally speed up our cognitive process (in essence, bypassing deeper thought about simple matters). Of course, like the rest of human nature, it has its drawbacks too: stereotyping and subjectivity to subliminal advertising messages come to mind.
Our propensity to thin-slice can make a muddle of social discourse. It is difficult for us to see the individual merits of someone who is from a different social class, race, or political party than we are or to rightly judge the merits of a specific action or argument because it is espoused by someone with whom we have profound disagreements in completely unrelated areas. These are not conscious decisions we make, but we can choose whether or not we allow our automatic thin-slicing to drive our slower, more reflective thought processes. We have to be willing to question our snap judgments, to “test the spirits” before we reach conclusions or take action.
In the Church, likewise, thin-slicing can be a blessing (quickly recognizing the fruit of the spirit in a believer’s life, having a “nose” for phony charities, etc.) and a curse (assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence, interpreting Scripture out of context, etc.). Unchecked thin-slicing leads us into a host of theological, ecclesiastical, and personal prejudices that can often impede spiritual growth and provide justification for sin. I mean “prejudice” here in its classical sense (to pre-judge, to make decisions before gathering sufficient evidence), not, despite its modern connotations, “racist”, “hateful” or simply, “bad”. Neither is it prejudice to have many things settled in advance of evaluating a person or an idea. To hold to the authority of Scripture, for instance, in judging thoughts or behaviors as sinful is not prejudice but prudence–you are simply obeying the “ground rules” for debate and discussion set by the Maker of the universe. By contrast, however, it is indeed prejudice to impute sinful motives to a fellow believer simply because they hold to a position you don’t.
Christians need to be mindful of this tendency and the ways it influences discourse, both between the world and the Church and between believers within the Body.
In a culture given to ever more truncated communication, the substitution of cliches and sound-bites for dialogue is the rule of the day. The truth of the Gospel interrupts the noise, forcing everyone to engage with the person of Christ. The world recoils from that intrusion, quickly recognizing both Christ’s difference from itself and authority over it. There have always only been two options–repentance and submission or rejection and assault.
It should never catch us off guard when the world and those in its thrall pigeonhole Christians. We should more or less expect them to do everything possible to shut us down, drown us out, and keep us from applying the truth to their lives. We can either walk back our faith, kowtowing to their side and turning our backs on the God who saves, or we can stand firm. When we do that, the world’s next move is always to attack, and it should not take us by surprise in the least (see Matthew 10).
Nonbelievers often fail to think beyond their knee-jerk association of Christians with “badness”, hurling quick quips and distortions at the Church from a safe distance. They seldom engage in actual reading of the Bible or relationships with actual Christians in effort to discredit us–exposure to those things for many, as we are well aware, can have the unwanted side affect of conversion. Among their favorite tactics is to extrapolate the motives of every Christian’s heart from any example they can find of a “Christian” behaving badly or sharing views that run counter to the fruits of the Spirit. Nevermind that many of their favorite whipping boys were not Christian in any biblically recognizable sense and that most of the worst opinions ever held by Christians are the result of insufficiently sanctified minds (that is, Christians taking their cues from the world rather than from Christ).
In the world’s construct of reality, a Christian who lives out the love of Christ with the greatest of devotion (reaching out to the lost with the only thing that can truly make a difference in their lives: the offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone) is at best “intolerant” and at worst a bigot. Christians are only tolerated by the world when they dance to the world’s tune, pushing aside the demands of Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Christians are told that we are only being “Christ-like” when we perform duties that any humanitarian would approve of (providing food, water, shelter, education, etc. to the poor or those in crisis). If we try to combine mercy ministries with the proclamation of the Gospel, we are marginalized and called hypocrites for offering those in need a “bait and switch” of some sort. If we focus our ministry on the truth of the Gospel, we are openly derided and constantly reminded about how Jesus was more concerned with actions than “doctrine”.
How should we relate to those who prejudice Christians and seek to tear us down? First, we have to remember that the people who attack us are acting in sin and have been made into agents of the Enemy by their rebellion against God. Our quarrel is not ultimately with them, and when we respond in kind to their thin-sliced judgments and catty harassment, we’re ceding Christ’s hard-won ground and souring them on the hope of redemption. Second, we cannot overemphasize personal holiness–the things we affirm as we seek to honor God and follow Him are going to raise the ire of the world, and it is of crucial importance that we maintain a standard of righteousness in our walk with God so that those who assail us in tearing down the truth cannot find any extra ammunition lying around.
Far more dangerous is the often bitter infighting between Christians over theology, ecclesiology, politics, and the like. Too often, when we feel we have something important to say, we get on an ideological high horse and ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees on that particular point, brushing aside the 10,000 things we hold in common (most importantly the blood of Christ). When that happens, we show the outside world that their convictions are correct–Christians are just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites on a succession of power trips who have nothing useful to contribute to “society”.
A distinction needs to be made between two types of Christian “infighting”. The first kind is often just a covert operation of the larger tension between the world and the message of Christ. That is, the fight is not between two branches of Christianity, but between Christians who want to honor Christ above all and people who want to submit Christ to the world’s system and are using the Church as a tool to that end (the conservative/liberal divide in theology is a good example of this). By wearing the mask of infighting, such conflicts are among Satan’s best tactic for tearing down the faith in the world’s eyes. The second strain, squabbling between Christians over issues that are in fact important when both sides are genuinely trying to apply God’s Word and give Him glory, is where I’m addressing these remarks.
When we let our discussion and decision-making begin and end with our thin-sliced assessments of each other, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the intellectual laziness we’re engaging in. When we set up certain trigger words as our shibboleths, beyond which no discussion can pass, we close our hearts to what the Lord may be trying to teach us through debate and disagreement. When we surround ourselves with an echo chamber of only like-minded voices, we deprive the Body of Christ of the challenge of learning and growing, and the joy that comes from submitting our differences to our shared worship of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Again, there are two primary points we forget at our peril.
First, no one is perfect. I know we’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we believe it–we expect our cohorts in the Church to attain a standard of personal and intellectual purity that is simply impossible this side of glory. When we remember this, however, we can move forward in a more honest dialogue that honors God who alone is holy. The fall means that every good gift of God is distorted, every solution has a dark underbelly, but also that many bad things can be redeemed. If we’re hoping for anything better in our churches than repentant, forgiven sinners, we’re bound to be disappointed. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (about church members suing one another) are instructive: “Actually, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Cor. 6:7-8).
Second, remember how Scripture tells us to handle disagreements and sins. Jesus outlines a very specific process (private confrontation, confrontation by a few witnesses, public confrontation in the church, and excommunication if unrepentance persists) in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul, as fierce a contender for the truth as the Church ever produced, urges us in familial terms to rebuke one another in love (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and places very strict standards on how such charges are brought against church leaders (1 Tim. 5:19). What we see is that patience, thoroughness, and charitability are to be the defining features in our public responses to disagreements.
Both these lessons are crucial in today’s high-tech world. The walls between the world and the Church have been dissolved when it comes to online debates. Accountability is replaced by anonymity and darts are hurled from all sides. The pace with which controversies explode in the age of the internet pressures everyone with an opinion to weigh in within a day or two–why? Because they know that if they wait a week to pray, reflect, and research, no one will care anymore. If that is truly the case, we should always wait at least a week before we respond to anything–if we’re still confused, angry, and convinced someone was wrong, then we’ll have firm ground to deliver a well-formed response. If we’ve forgotten about it, it probably means that we should have–it wasn’t important enough to get our knickers in a wad over after all.
The reason this matters is wrapped up in the classic injunction to peace in the Church: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I fear that we may be so angry, even if righteously, that we turn from God and bow to a favorite idol of modern man–being right, understood, and acclaimed. I fear that this idol is worshipped more than the God we all desire to serve and worship, and that is on full display when we fight in public. May God have mercy on us all.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Doc Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.
Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he seemed like a genuinely humble and grateful man–the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.
Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. I don’t know if Doc trusted Christ for his salvation or not, but I sincerely hope so. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about the Gospel and the Church are any indication, my hope may be well founded. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: ”When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”
Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.
I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of God’s Word and modeled in the faithful witness of believers. We can appreciate the music as the creative spirit of the image of God, but we should also never forget that the message of all the best gospel songs needs to be delivered in person and expounded to take root.
If Doc was indeed a follower of Jesus, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to seek her Creator. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, thankfully, on our own merit. Ironically, perhaps, it is this knowledge of the end of our faith that makes the redemption of our culture and the salvation of our fellow men our greatest goal.
O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.
O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.
O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.
O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.
Posted by Justin Lonas
What happens when a pastor has an awakening in his own relationship with Christ? When he comes to an understanding of the Word that renews his passion for the Gospel and the work of the ministry? He is bound (and responsible) to share his discovery with his congregation as an evidence of the grace of God in His life and the life of the local body.
What happens when he addresses the congregation, however, may not be nearly so joyous as his initial breakthrough. Often, the substance of spiritual growth involves things (conviction of sin, deeper understanding of grace, shift of focus from self to Christ) that will necessarily step on the toes of those who are not interested in the things of God and attend church for merely social or personal reasons. Sometimes, however, even those who share the pastor’s sincere faith and desire for growth will take offense at a challenging teaching from the Word.
I’ve seen far too many pastors get frustrated when they have a clear sense that the Lord is leading them and their churches into greater obedience to His Word but their congregation is either unmoved or even hostile to the changes in practice that obedience might lead to. In recent months, a few pastors I’m acquainted with have been fired or pressured to backpedal in their teaching under threat of dismissal. In those cases I’m familiar with, the pastors in question have been pilloried for being “too Calvinist” for preaching the glory of God’s work in sending His Son to die for our sins in a way that gives God’s power in redeeming us precedence over man’s work in responding.
I’m not sure why the congregations of these pastors have rejected their sincere teaching, and I don’t want this post to be a quibble over doctrine or semantics. What I do want is to outline a few helpful principles that churches and pastors should apply when this type of situation (a pastor relaying a doctrinal/obedience awakening to a church that hasn’t experienced the same awakening) arises.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Originally published in Pulpit Helps Magazine, April 2009.
On the face of it, Easter seems like a straightforward celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
Without doubt, the salvation of mankind was an integral part of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The wider view of Calvary, however, reveals Christ crucified as the cornerstone of God’s plan for His ultimate glory.
From the very beginning, Easter was calculated for; in the midst of meting out the justified curses on His handiwork after their rebellion, God promised a coming redemption (Gen. 3:15). Later, he clarified his promises through the prophets, most notably via a man named “Salvation is God” (Isaiah). Isaiah begins to distinguish between two comings of Messiah—he elaborates on the theme of the coming king who will crush Satan’s head (Is. 9:1-7), but adds to it the narrative of the “suffering servant” who would be undeservedly punished to take away the sins of mankind (Is. 53:1-12). As we see throughout Scripture, both appearances are crucial to a proper understanding of Christ. Paradoxically, the Jews were so focused on the second, triumphal coming that they had Jesus crucified for blasphemy at His first.
The events surrounding the crucifixion are further evidence of the cosmic significance of that day. The thorns woven into His crown evoke a powerful irony as a product of the curse was used to mark the King on the day He settled the score; the story arc of fall and redemption came full circle. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation speaks of the earthquakes, darkness, and raising of deceased saints at Christ’s death as the whole of creation bearing witness to the fact of His Lordship and the act of redemption.
While Easter often draws our focus to the cross, the resurrection is the foundational act that gives fullness of meaning to everything that came before. Sometimes we think of it as the happy ending to the “real story” of atonement, but without rising from the dead, Christ’s work would not have been complete. Among others, four reasons stand out as to why the resurrection deserves paramount attention.
1) It was prophesied.
Isaiah is replete with references to Messiah’s return to reign after His suffering. In 55:11-13, he says “So will My word which goes froth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.”
The “Word” spoken of here most likely refers to Christ. The Lord’s declaration that He would not return empty tells us that His death alone was not the sum total of His task on earth. The work of redeeming creation referenced in this passage is not yet complete, but it is promised; the crucified servant, therefore, had to be raised to return. In Matt. 20:18-19, John 2:19, and elsewhere, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, seldom mentioning one without the other.
2) The Resurrection defeated death and Satan.
Christ’s atonement had a manifold purpose: to defeat not only sin but death and Satan. Whereas His sacrificial death covered the sins of humanity, only His resurrection cast aside death and dealt the crushing blow to Satan’s power.
Paul’s polemic against disbelief in the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 makes clear that Christ’s return to life was the key both to eternal life and to the demise of death. Paul proves that Christ was in fact raised (vv. 4-8), that His ongoing life is key to our salvation (vv. 16-19), that His resurrection heralds eternal life for those who follow Him (vv. 20-23), and that death itself has been defeated by Christ’s act (vv. 26, 54-57). “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20-21). Paul reiterated this truth to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to grieve with hope in the assurance of resurrection and Christ’s victory over death (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
3) It brought greater glory to God
Perhaps the only thing that could show God’s holiness, power, and love more than casting His only son away from Himself by making Him into sin itself to atone for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21) was for Him to be restored to fellowship with Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Christ the “first fruits” was welcomed back to the Father, opening the door for all those who believe in Him to be adopted into the Kingdom. For the first time since the fall, the Lord was able to enjoy fellowship with His creation without violating His holiness.
Additionally, In Luke 24:35-36, Jesus points out that His suffering and resurrection were necessary for Him to enter into His glory. His triumph over death and Satan showed once for all His ultimate power. Because He died the death of a cursed criminal on the cross, His resurrection brought supreme honor and glory from the greatest dishonor man could subject Him to.
4) The Resurrection empowered Christ’s followers
Jesus’ very public death, without a public resurrection, would have easily quashed the spread of His teaching. As Jesus prophesied in Matt. 26:31-32, His death scattered the disciples, but He drew them back to Himself and commissioned them after He was raised. Athanasius cites the empowerment of the disciples after the resurrection as evidence of Christ’s defeat of death. The early Church clearly did not fear death as the culture around them, braving persecutions and martyrdom to take the Gospel to the corners of the known world within a few generations of Christ. The resurrection reinvigorated the disciples’ commitment to Christ’s message and paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Living it out
Clearly, Easter should motivate us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the truths that form the backbone of our faith. It is a time for us to reflect on the cost of our redemption, the meaning of forgiveness, and the glory of God. More than that, however, it should stir us to give flesh to the reality of Christ’s life; we are to, as Paul said in Phil. 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The magnitude of Christ’s work on the first Easter (not just physically, but theologically [giving up His nature, becoming separated from the Father, etc.]) demands a response of obedience to His holiness and mercy. The obligation is one of gratitude; the God who gave His Son for us is not interested in forced obedience.
Living the resurrection should encompass both submission to God’s will, and dedication to Christ’s call to make disciples. When we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), our actions fly in the face of human nature because they are flowing from the life within us. In that way, we give evidence to Christ’s resurrection; only if He was raised and is alive could He continue to work among men.
Jesus Himself desires that we carry on His mission in the power of the resurrection. In His “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17, He pleads to the Father for His disciples, saying, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (vv. 17-19). In taking the Gospel to our neighbors and the nations, we are fulfilling Christ’s call and His hope for our lives.
John’s gospel concludes with a musing on the scope of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). There is a definite sense in which every believer tells a unique part of that story until the whole world is indeed filled with truth and majesty at the second coming. The glory of the resurrection is seen each day in the fullness of Christ’s living Body, the Church. Perhaps that is what the celebration of Easter is truly about
Posted by Justin Lonas
“Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider our calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:10-31).
Posted by Justin Lonas
These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.
At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”
To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.
Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.
This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.
If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.
In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Originally published in Pulpit Helps, December 2008.
Each year at Christmas, we return to the manger. The simple image of the Messiah surrounded by livestock and shepherds is for many an archetype of the Incarnation and a recurring theme in our hymns and traditions.
We are right to put Christ’s infancy at the forefront of our celebration because God chose to put it at the forefront of the symbolism surrounding His coming. As if the Creator of the universe taking human form wasn’t mind-blowing enough, He chose to arrive on the scene naked and helpless, completely dependent upon his parents for nourishment and protection. In divine paradox, He was both Father and child to them.
In spite of His authority and ability to do so, Christ did not depart from these humble beginnings. Isaiah 53:2 says “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” He never aspired to “greatness” in the human sense, content to quietly work the will of the Father and withdrawing from the praise of the masses. God-become-man demonstrated His identity precisely by not trumpeting it (Phil. 2:6); those who met Him at the manger were awed at the very ordinariness of His human form.
Equally significant is the location of His birth. While there is confusion as to the exact placement of the manger (whether in a stable, on the lower floor of a house, or in a cave), it is a place not befitting human residence, let alone God’s. But it was there in a dishonorable, unsanitary space that Christ entered His world. British author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton capitalizes on this in The Everlasting Man. Seizing on the image of the cave, he writes, “It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors…had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born.” Indeed, His birth as an outcast foreshadowed the life of homelessness that He and his disciples led (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58).
The lowly birth of Christ, as Chesterton goes on to state, is the central event of all history, the end of mythology’s dreams and philosophy’s search, and the trumpet call of victory over Satan. He says, “It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited this world in person. It declares that really…right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into this world this original invisible being about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths: the Man Who Made the World.” The manger turns the world on its ear.
God’s entry into the world serves a larger purpose than simply flying in the face of human conventions, however. His arrival was the ultimate demonstration both of His authority over creation (in being born of a virgin) and His love and concern for man. Because He “showed up” in the person of Christ, His character has been demonstrated for all to see. He cannot be ignorant of poverty, for He was poor. He has ultimate sympathy for the suffering because He was tortured and gave His life. No man can accuse Him of being distant or uncaring because He is “God with us.” By healing the sick and rebuking the proud, He reminds us that He has entered the world to “set it to rights”; He will bring His justice.
He came as a man to redeem the world. He had to take part in birth and death to defeat the power of Satan over men (Heb. 2:14). As Athanasius of Alexandria put it, He came “to renew men according to His image.” Because of the manger, birth and life are honored with the presence of the King. In lowering Himself, he gave significance to the daily tasks and struggles of life. He came to set a standard by which we should also live.
This then is the mystery of the Incarnation—through all these things, He commands us to follow Him. From the manger, he bids us to follow into a life of lowliness, wandering, sacrifice, and submission to the Father. The irony of God’s destruction of earth’s status quo is that it simultaneously frees us from slavery under the law and calls us to a higher road. The very Word of God, by whom all things were made and are held together, has shown us the way, and we are to be imitators of Him. Such is the gift of Christmas.
Posted by Justin Lonas.
Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.
“Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.
From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.
The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.
See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.”
Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).
The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.
When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”
When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).
Posted by Justin Lonas
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, 2011, Crossway, Wheaton, Ill., ISBN 9781433526909, 283 pages, $15.99, softcover.
Among evangelical Christians these days, there is a groundswell movement toward cultural transformation—not simply to reach the world with the Gospel of Christ but to do the work of renewing communities and creation as a whole to make ready for the new heavens and the new earth. This philosophy goes by several names with different shades of meaning: social justice, kingdom building, missional ministry, shalom, etc.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written What Is the Mission of the Church? to address this “mission drift” and call the Church to remember that its specific priority is the proclamation of salvation—the redemption of mankind from the righteous wrath of a holy God through the shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ.
Though their aim is to correct a popular level misconception, the authors rightly critique the theologians and pastors who have propagated exegetical and hermeneutical faults to drive the movement. They are careful and nuanced in their argument, but pull no punches when expositing the key passages used as source texts for the other side of the debate (Gen. 12, Lev. 19, Isa. 58, Amos 5, Matt.25, etc.). The level of scholarship employed and the winsome tone of the book make their case a strong one. The book is not meant to be a polemic against an opposing viewpoint, but rather a plea for all believers to let Scripture, not culture, determine the focus of our efforts in this world.
DeYoung and Gilbert are not attempting to undermine the good work done by believers in various venues, rather they criticize such alternative interpretations of the Church’s core mission as “putting hard ‘oughts’ where there should be inviting ‘cans’.” That is, they warn against confusing the good things that Christians may be individually called to do with the overarching goal that the Church gathered must pursue.
They carefully define “mission” as the central priority of the Church to which all other activities point and provide support. They point out repeatedly that the Church is given its mission specifically by Christ, and that its mission is distinct from (though part of) the overall mission of God in restoring a fallen creation—our mission is not exactly the same as God’s mission, and we shouldn’t take that unobtainable responsibility on ourselves.
Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e. that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), the authors issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation.
What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous.
Take: Must Read
Posted by Justin Lonas
“…and all of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet. 5:5, quoting Prov. 3:34).
I tend to spend a lot of time writing about theology, but I’d like to take a moment to write about how we write (and talk) about theology. When we discuss theological issues, particularly those surrounding core tenets of the faith, there is often a subtle strain underpinning the approach of both sides of every debate–pride.
On the side of liberalism lies the temptation to the pride of discovering the “hidden truths” of Christianity & the sense of enlightenment that accompanies that assumption. On the side of orthodoxy lurks the pride of the elder brother, delighting more in besting the prodigal than in the purity of loving the father. This is not to say that debates of this nature are unimportant–they are often critically so–but that the attitudes and actions toward one another to which Christ and the apostles call us in general apply equally strongly here. Those of us who want to contend for the faith (particularly those of us in the Reformed tradition of robust assurance of doctrine) must be painstakingly cautious to avoid placing our pride above the truth we love, lest we tempt our detractors to abandon it altogether. Let’s look at a few passages of Scripture that lay this out for us.
In the first place, we need to be very careful where we draw divisions over theology in the first place. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As you sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may also be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those who believer in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even 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 sent Me” (John 17: 17-21).
Clearly, the unity of the Body is of primary concern–it distorts the very image of God when His people are divided. Notice, though, that the unity Christ prayed for is grounded on the sanctification that comes from the truth of God’s Word. Unity where there should be separation brings dishonor to the Lord (like when Paul admonished the Corinthians for keeping fellowship with brazen fornicators in 1 Corinthians 5:2, “you have become arrogant and have not mourned, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.“). Watering down the Gospel in the name of keeping fellowship with those who disbelieve ultimately leads to faithlessness and greater schisms down the road. By the same token, however, making a federal case of every little issue that should be the subject of a talk over a cup of coffee unnecessarily disrupts the unity that we should have together against our common foes.
Secondly, we should consider the ways in which we pursue the unity Christ calls us to. Paul elaborates at length on the specific ways Christians ought to treat one another, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:9-18).
This list has a lot of active verbs, reminding us that the love of the Body does not come passively but must be pursued and cultivated to bear fruit. Paul urges a sincere love, one that unites us both in opposition to sin and falsehood (”abhor what is evil“) and in commitment to the person and work of Christ (”cling to what is good“). He goes farther, though, exhorting believers to love their enemies as well, blessing them and returning good for evil. If Christ’s high priestly prayer urges us to zealously guard our unity, Paul’s list urges us to treat the opposition with all the courtesy and grace they deny to us. Neither leaves any room for arrogance, spite, or violence (physical or verbal).
The bottom line is humility. If we want to hold fiercely to the truths of Scripture, we have to trust God to defend His Word. This does not mean that we should hide the truth or back away from biblical stances that are unpopular with the world, but it does mean that the Word does not rise or fall on our defense of it. When we place our whole faith in Him, He will give us the grace to speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15) in every situation. If you are in the right on a given issue, be right, but do so standing in the manifold grace of God revealed in His Word by His Spirit rather than on the strength of your conviction.
Finally, Peter tells us, “all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:8-9). If the message of the Gospel is distorted by the shrillness of its delivery or the conduct of the messenger, then we are blessing no one and failing our calling. Our Gospel proclamation should leave no room for anyone but Christ to be the featured player in the story.
Posted by Justin Lonas