Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2008, and updated for Disciple Magazine, October 2010.
It seems as though many who’ve encountered Christ, from the very beginning, have confused His mission with political solutions to the world’s problems. From Herod’s violent reaction to the perceived threat of the King’s birth (Matt. 2) to the crowd Jesus fed who then sought to make Him king (John 6:15) to the general perception that He had come to establish an earthly kingdom (exemplified by the disciples misunderstanding of His death in John 20:9-10), men have misinterpreted the Kingdom of God according to their own vision.
Through the centuries, we see this pattern repeated—in Constantine, the aggregation of power in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades, the alliance between Church and state through most of modern European history, etc. While in America the relationship between religion and politics was designed to be more distant than in the nations of our forebears, there is still significant overlap. In this heated election season, both sides are quick to invoke God and reach out to the Christian community. The tendency to assign God to a political party and vote accordingly is pervasive—but that’s not what He calls us to.
While there are certain issues never to be compromised on (i.e.—protecting the sanctity of life), almost all political positions involve man’s ideas and plans and therefore are likely to be fundamentally flawed. When we passionately identify ourselves as a Church with any party, we can cheapen our witness by allying ourselves with unbiblical policies and programs. Such a commitment detracts from our ability to reach the lost by creating additional stumbling blocks for unbelievers. Those uncomfortable with being confronted about their need for a Savior will be that much more resistant to that message delivered by someone who is perceived as a political opponent. “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” (1 Cor. 1:18a)—why would we want to make it more difficult for someone to come to the Truth?
At the risk of oversimplification, Americans tend to take one of two approaches in this arena, both of which are damaging to the Gospel. 1) We cherish our religious freedom and we believe that it is the government’s job to enforce morality in the culture, or 2) We cherish the work of Christ and we believe it is the government’s job to do justice and love mercy.
When we succumb to the first approach, we show a watching world that Christianity is not as important in society as general conservatism and that we don’t trust God to redeem men from the inside out as He has always done. When we fall to the second, we show the world that Christianity is less about personal sacrifice and more about making sure someone else takes up their cross and gives involuntarily to the poor and needy through taxes. We show that we don’t trust God to move His Church to live out His kingdom. In either case, we show a willingness to compromise certain key teachings of Christ in order to advance a temporal agenda.
Both approaches belie a fundamental distrust of God’s view of things—if there is one theme that Jesus hit over and over again during His ministry, it was that His kingdom was not of this world. He had eternity in view in everything He did, and Christian involvement in politics can easily devolve into idolatry of the present and visible over the permanent and invisible.
Politics is, fundamentally, about gaining and leveraging power. It revolves around the ability to make others do what you want them to, the desire to protect your interests, and a belief that we must solve our own problems rather than allowing God to work in His time. Christ calls us rather to settle offenses personally and quickly (Matt. 5: 21-26), to graciously accept persecution and go the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-42), to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), to trust God to reward righteousness practiced in secret (Matt. 6:1-6), and to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12).
Most of all, He has called us to be fishers of men and to make disciples. Men’s hearts are not changed through political action, but by the work of the Spirit. Accordingly, that should be the focus of our lives and work. If we focus on political solutions to the problems facing the world, we forfeit opportunities to show Christ through service. Governments can provide many services, but without the ability to address the base-level need of humanity, they can never make men whole.
As dangerous an animal as politics can be, it is important to distinguish it from governing authority. Though it is difficult to separate the two in our country, there is an important distinction—governments are instituted by God to preserve order, punish evildoers, and protect the weak. As such, we are told to submit to them (Titus 3:1, Rom. 13:1) to pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6-7) and to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2:2). These passages assume the absolute despotism of the day as the norm and that citizenry has but two choices—obedience and disobedience. The concept of representative government of, by, and for the people (cherished though it may be by most Americans) is not given a category in Scripture. We struggle with this, in short, because we are torn between the submission and prayer commanded of us and the very tangible ability to change things through political action.
As in all professions, God has placed many of His servants in the realm of government. Working with authorities to achieve godly goals is noble and right (as we see in Daniel and Esther) when it is a part of our primary goal of following Him and spreading His Truth. Through such action, William Wilberforce was able to lead the movement to eradicate slavery in the British Empire and stir a revival of true Christianity in that nation. Christians working within governments have helped save untold thousands of lives around the world through disease prevention, aid programs, and peace negotiations, giving men the opportunity to live to hear the Truth. In our own day, believers fight valiantly for the right of unborn children to live, both politically and practically (through adoption and crisis pregnancy centers).
These two temptations—to believe that politics can solve all our problems or to believe that God never uses political action to advance His plans—are always knocking at our door. Even as we seek to focus on our primary mission as His Church, we must be careful to recognize that God’s will and the authorities He set over us are not always in conflict. As we head into the voting booth soon, let us strive to vote according to scriptural principles, but remember that no party or candidate has a platform that wholly conforms to God’s commands. No matter the outcome, our responsibility is to trust the Lord’s sovereignty, submit to and intercede for those He places over us, and be about His business in all aspects of life—not just in the ballot box.
Posted by Justin Lonas
The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle: A Journey of Love across Africa, Nell Robertson Chinchen, 2012, Christian Focus Publications, Faern, Scotland, ISBN 9781845509217, 175 pages, $12.99, softcover.
Serving as a part of a missions organization, my coworkers and I have the opportunity to hear so many firsthand stories of the incredible power of God to use individuals, families, churches, and institutions to proclaim His Gospel and redeem people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. This is a source of great joy, but also a danger—if you’re not careful, you can grow numb to the eternal significance of this. This can happen even in wonderfully missions-focused churches, and every Christian should be on guard to keep themselves uncalloused.
A good missionary biography can be an excellent tool to refresh the sheer wonder at the work of God that we as believers should enjoy. Nell Robertson Chinchen’s The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle serves admirably for this. The Chinchen family’s story of spiritual growth from complacent churchgoing to pastoral ministry to pioneering missionary work across Africa offers example after example of God’s radical faithfulness to His obedient servants.
In the book, Chinchen recounts her family’s journey into a lifetime of missionary work over the course of dozens of short stories. It would be impossible to miss the Lord’s guidance of every step of their move to the jungles of Liberia, the establishment of the African Bible College there and (later) in Malawi and Uganda, and the blossoming of their radio ministry, and Chinchen is careful to make sure readers know that He deserves all the glory.
Though the book’s anecdotal format seems to leave some gaps in the larger narrative of the Chinchens’ life and ministry (there is enough material there, to be sure, for a much longer book) and doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of their experience as one might hope, what shines through is the mighty hand of God in every facet of their work.
Chinchen shares how God opened doors for ministry by bringing “men of peace” to guide them through red tape and dangerous situations, how He miraculously provided land, equipment, and funding for every ministry need, and how He protected them through disease, fire, political unrest, and war. Her frank and funny style resonates well, and punctures the notion that missionaries must somehow be extraordinarily somber, hyper-spiritual people to be effective.
The reason I picked up this book is largely personal—I grew up in a church that supported the Chinchens. They were regulars at our congregational missions conferences, and I remember them coming over to my family’s house for meals when I was 9 or 10 years old. It seems like yesterday that we were praying for their safety during the Liberian Civil Wars and rejoicing with them at the Lord’s provision for a new African Bible College campus in Malawi. I can attest to their faith and infectious zeal for missions, and that comes through in the book.
The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle should be a great encouragement to all believers to look up and see what God is doing, and perhaps even to respond to His call to “ go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
Posted by Justin Lonas
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
True faith in Jesus Christ shouldn’t be confused with religion–we all know the clichés. In fact, I believe much of the trouble with reaching the lost in so-called “Christian cultures” has to do with the fact that faithless religion can inoculate souls against the power of the Gospel.
In America especially, however, we love the idea of a public shared faith. We want our political and civic leaders to at least call themselves religious, to give a “shout-out” to God at public gatherings. We’d be happy to have prayer back in the public schools, even if it’s not required to be to the God of the Bible. The assumption behind this is that acknowledgment of the supernatural will help keep our darker natures in check and raise the level of collective morality in our communities and public affairs.
It’s only natural for Christians to bristle at the vilification of belief in God in society, but too often, the civic religion of the public square for which we settle conflates belief in any range of deities with general values and ethics, and the resulting mush is something that no one could love, but that few could be offended by. Such “religion” is hardly an asset to the Gospel. Or is it?
Sure, a civic religion that sees it as good citizenship to be a part of a church can promote apostasy in churches desiring to lure influential businessmen and politicians in attendance. But it could also drive “upwardly mobile” members of the community into a place where they will encounter the saving grace of Jesus Christ through a clear presentation of the Gospel for the first time.
A civic religion that places peer pressure on business owners to donate to local charities, churches, and outreach events (whether or not they do so from a heart longing for the salvation of the lost) could make light of the Church’s calling to make disciples. But it could provide needed funds to vibrant ministries that would otherwise languish.
A civic religion that sees Protestants, Catholics, and concerned nonbelievers come together to fight abortion certainly could muddy the theological waters and damage the witness of the exclusive Gospel in the community. But it could also foster the development of crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies that will faithfully proclaim Christ as they seek to love the downtrodden and prevent them from turning one sinful choice into a far greater one.
A civic religion that brings 1,500 community leaders into a room for a prayer breakfast (as we have here in Chattanooga each year) could be simply an opportunity for glad-handing and networking with like-minded citizens. But it could provide a legitimate opportunity to call local churches to remember that “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). It could also provide a platform to offer a clear Gospel call to each of those in attendance.
Clearly, civic religion should not be goal of the Church. Clearly, it could damage the Church and diminish the light of Christ in our culture. Clearly, our focus should be on faithfully proclaiming salvation through faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, as taught by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. But let us be careful before we throw all such public “faith” under the bus. It can be (and has been) used greatly by God as a framework that opens doors to the introduction of the true Gospel into the hearts of many.
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
Here are a few books (in no particular order) that I encountered this year of varying genres that I would say are worth recommending for one reason or another.
Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, Michael Card
This wasn’t a particularly exegetical or particularly thorough commentary, but it caught my attention for its style. Card looks at the biblical text with an artist’s eye, and reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world was nothing less than astonishing. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut spiritually, and Card’s “devotional commentary” drags you back to the sheer wonder of our Lord and His love for men. Read my full review HERE.
Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, Kevin DeYoung, ed.
Some books are great at covering vast expanses of material in succinct and engaging ways. This is one of those. A bunch of young-ish pastors and theologians from around the world team up to tell a new generation of Christians the basics of theology, and the result is a great reminder of what we believe and why it matters. In particular, Greg Gilbert’s chapter on the message of the Gospel is probably the most powerful expression of the central truth of Scripture I’ve read in a long time. Read my full review HERE.
Truman, David McCullough
I love history, and I love getting a glimpse at history through biographies. Learning abstract ideas is useful, but opening a window into someone’s life to watch how those ideas play out over decades. Perhaps nobody is writing better biographies presently than David McCullough, and his Truman is a monumental work (in scope and depth). Though I find I disagree with many (if not most) of his political viewpoints, I think I’d have loved to have dinner and a Poker game with Harry Truman. McCullough’s portrait of the 33rd president shows the authenticity and grit of the last true “man of the people” to inhabit the White House.
Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell
I’m a longtime follower of Sowell’s incisive and prescient newspaper columns, but somehow I’d managed never to read any of his books until now. In the pages of Basic Economics, he unlocks the mysteries of the marketplace in ways that anyone could understand, bringing the complexities of the “dismal science” into principles that every voter should bring to bear on their elected officials. If more people would read and take to heart these lessons, the populace might never again elect someone whose political platform includes any form of government tampering with domestic and international markets.
How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek W. H. Thomas
Derek Thomas’ short and sweet meditation on “the greatest chapter in the Bible” was one of my favorite surprises this year. Thomas is quick to remind us that this Gospel spelled out so beautifully by Paul in Romans chapter 8 is the heartbeat of our faith, and that we can never devote too much time and energy to telling and retelling its mysteries to God’s great glory. Indeed the cross of Christ is the center point of all God’s creation and character, as Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). How could we spend our energies on anything less? Read my full review HERE.
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert
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), DeYoung and Gilbert 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. Read my full review HERE.
The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek
Sowell whet my appetite for a more in-depth look at socio-economic studies, so I took a stab at Hayek’s magnum opus. It’s a bit dense at times, but that’s more a reflection on the reader than the author. This is a tremendous repository of wisdom for citizens of any nation. Hayek’s commentary on issues from unionism to taxation to social security to state coercion reads as though it was taken from present-day political discussions rather than a 5-decade-old treatise. This is a more openly ideological work than most books on economic theory, but Hayek’s razor-sharp intellect makes his arguments in favor of limited government and free markets sound like the height of accepted wisdom. A must-read for anyone in any kind of policymaking position.
Desiring God, John Piper
I’m rather embarrassed to have never read this classic before., but I’m glad I took the time to enjoy it this year. Enough has been said about this book elsewhere to fill a shelf (and Piper’s eponymous parachurch is a daily fleshing-out of its themes), and all I’ll add is that it is a unique and powerful work. Joy is the only valid motivation for the Christian, as it wasn’t for duty that Christ died.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Another one I’m embarrassed to have missed up to this point. Finn is so ingrained in the fabric of our American culture that it’s easy to think you know the story without ever having read it. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the classics–Twain’s narrative style is comically brilliant, his themes touch every aspect of life in 19th century America, and his insight into the soul of the nation still resonates. Truly the firstborn of American novels.
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller
I had heard about this book from various quarters for quite a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get a copy. Frankly, I’m not a fan of books about prayer and other spiritual disciplines because they often share a common flaw–an author assumes that the way that God worked with him in his own life is somehow a measurable, normative prescription for how God works with everyone. Miller delightfully avoids this temptation, and the result is a book that is both bold and helpful. Read my full review HERE.
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
In Christian circles, there are a lot of little phrases we use to encapsulate large swaths of theological truth for the benefit of concise conversation. Detractors call this “speaking in code” or “Christianese”, and they do have a point. We have a great tendency overuse our favorite idioms to the detriment of their meaning and the confusion of unbelievers. On balance, however, such expressions as “the kingdom of God”, “the Great Commission,” “God’s will”, “God’s plan”, or “new Covenant” are helpful aggregations of meaning and many are directly biblical. Sure, they need to be unpacked and explained to new believers, but their distillation of complex truths helps us grasp the basics and grow deeper in our understanding of God and His Word.
One of my favorites in this category is the phrase, “God’s economy”, as in, “Spending 20 hours a week to share the Gospel at the inner-city mission seems like a waste of time in earthly terms, but, in God’s economy, it makes perfect sense.” We use it to convey the idea that there is a separate (from the world) system of resource allocation that is directed by and focused on God. It’s a great, succinct phrase packed with significance.
There is a sense in which this idea is not just extrapolated from Scripture, but present in verbal form. “Economy” is essentially a Greek word, a transliteration of oikonomia (the law or order of a house), and many manuscripts contain a variant of this word in 1 Timothy 1:4. The NASB renders this verse: “nor pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration (oikonomia) of God which is by faith.” Older renderings, like the KJV, follow the sources of the Latin Vulgate, giving the last part of this verse as, “…godly edifying (oikodomia lit. “house-building”) which is in faith.” So God’s economy, biblically, is the notion of His oversight of his household. In this, we are stewards, as Jesus teaches in parable form in Luke 16, and we will give an account for our management of His resources. In the same manner, essayist Wendell Berry describes the kingdom of God as the overarching ”great economy” to which all lesser economies are subservient.
I’ve been contemplating this notion of late because I’ve been reading a lot in the secular discipline of economics. This study fascinates me because economics seems to be one of the truly “honest” social sciences. That is, properly practiced, it attempts to do no more than analyze human behavior, particularly in the allocation of resources and the responses to incentives, rather than prescriptively telling people what to think. Among the themes that jump out from the pages of Hayek, Sowell, and, yes, even Levitt & Dubner, the strongest is the conclusion that the laws of economics (essentially 1] that resources always flow to where they are most valuable and 2] that people, corporations, and institutions respond to cost-based incentives in their decisions) supersede almost all other motivations for the choices we make.
These principles are quite effective at describing why the esoteric goals of legislation are never met, but the often hidden incentives such laws create always come to fulfillment (e.g. welfare programs incentivizing non-work over employment, etc.). They help us understand why prices rise and fall, why businesses come and go, and why nations have gone to war over trade. They are so uniformly observed across history, geography, and culture that Hayek goes so far as to call the market system a “marvel” on par with gravity, inertia, or life itself. When we consider that even things like time, emotions, and energy can be thought of as resources whose cost must be considered, a whole array of human interactions come under the descriptive power of economics. It enables us to wrap our minds around myriad human choices in the same way that mathematics gives form to the mysteries of the physical universe; neither discipline creates the phenomena it describes, but each makes the unknown into something observable and measurable.
But is that all there is to this life, responding to incentives according to our self-interest? What does economics have to say about the soul and its relation to God? Does “God’s economy” fit into categories of supply and demand? Certainly God is above human wisdom; the best understanding common to us “under the sun” doesn’t have the capacity to contain God’s plans and desires (as Job 28, etc., tell us). Scripture is filled with examples of the faithful submitting to God’s wisdom and showing the world’s ways to be utterly subservient to Him (David defeating Goliath; Hannaniah, Mishael, & Azariah surviving the furnace; Daniel preserved in the lion’s den; Esther pleading her case before the king; the virgin birth of Christ; etc.). God is clearly glorified when we put our faith in Him and act on it, even when doing so flies in the face of earthly realities.
Even so, something about economic theory won’t let me leave it at that. If Hayek is right in calling the price system a marvel of creation, might it be that God allows the “invisible hand” of the marketplace (in Adam Smith’s terminology) to govern the free interactions among men just as the laws of nature govern the interactions of matter? If that were the case, then the self-interest of mankind (though, like everything else, perverted by the fall) would have to be an intentional, created part of the human soul. So much of what we think of as righteous living and following after Christ, however, seems to be based on altruism, seeking others’ best, which is the antithesis of self-interest. There is the rub, to be sure. It would be inconsistent for God to have created us to operate from self-interest only to demand altruism from us in order to stay in relationship with Him.
When we look at the appeals God makes to us for obedience, particularly in the Gospels, we notice a curious pattern: God calls us from an angle of self-interest! Take the following, for example: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Even a passage that would seem to contradict that message reaffirms it: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whosoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 24-25).
The self-interest in these passages is not of the same kind that motivates us to find the best price on items at the supermarket or to avoid actions that bring us harm. This is a self-interest in eternal terms that is revealed to us only through the Spirit of God, but it is still self-interest. God’s call is difficult but not ultimately altruistic because He appeals to our desires for rest, joy, reward, life, etc., to motivate us to seek Him. The incentives God provides only make sense in His economy, but under His authority they are powerful incentives, powerful enough to draw us from worldly wealth and wisdom to a temporal life that forsakes all other self-interest. God created us to seek our best interest, but He alone can satisfy that longing. When we heed His Spirit’s leading, we recognize that the only way to fulfill our deepest desires in God’s economy is to forsake every incentive of the lesser economies and pursue God alone. As John Piper puts it in Desiring God, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Our redeemed self-interest in God’s grand plan makes possible every act of unconditional altruism that Christ calls us to in this life.
This is a marvel indeed.
Posted by Justin Lonas.
The Christian blogosphere (and larger publishing world) has been hopping for the past two weeks with the controversy surrounding emerging church pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. This has been essentially a discussion about the doctrine of eternal punishment and the question of what happens to those who exit this life without Christ. In my view, at least, it’s been a very needed debate about something very important to orthodox theology that is so often ignored because of its very uncomfortable, unsettling nature.
Our humanity recoils when we read passages like Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” Do we really want to serve that God? If what He says is at all true, we ought to be deathly afraid. God is not threatening us, but rather reminding us of our earned destiny without His interposition of grace through the shed blood of Christ. In context, that particular passage contains Christ’s words to the disciples when he sent them out to bear witness. It is an exhortation to boldness–don’t shrink back from those who threaten you because the fate of their eternal soul is in God’s hands. Be bold for your sake and theirs. Just from that snapshot, we see very clearly how central the truth of hell is to our joy in the sacrifice of Christ and our zeal for evangelism, in short, the Gospel.
That said, this post is not intended to be a review of systematic theology. Others have written better and in more depth about the subject. Rather it is to call our attention to the fractures in that theology that has historically tied Christians together. Kevin DeYoung encapsulates this angle of the current storm (and why it matters) in the midst of his extra-long review of Bell’s book:
“The primary intended audience [for Love Wins] appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity (Ã¡ la Keller’s Reason for God), but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the ‘growing number’ who have become aware that the Christian story has been ‘hijacked’ (vii). Love Wins is for those who have heard a version of the Gospel that now makes their stomachs churn and their pulses rise, and makes them cry out, ‘I would never be a part of that’ (viii). This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.
“Over and over, Bell refers to the ’staggering number’ of people just like him, people who can’t believe the message they used to believe, people who want nothing to do with traditional Christianity, people who don’t want to leave the faith but can’t live in the faith they once embraced. I have no doubt there are many people like this inside and outside our churches. Some will leave the faith altogether. Others””and they are in the worse position””will opt for liberalism, which has always seen itself as a halfway house between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief.
“But before we let Bell and others write the present story, we must remember that there are also a ’staggering number’ of young people who want the straight up, unvarnished truth. They want doctrinal edges and traditional orthodoxy. They want no-holds-barred preaching. They don’t want to leave traditional Christianity. They are ready to go deeper into it.
“Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions””back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.”
When I was growing up, it was a lot easier to believe that everyone who called himself a Christian, went to church, read the top-selling Christian books, attended the big Christian conferenecs, etc. believed pretty much the same things. We all read the Bible, we all fought against abortion, we all thought the world of Billy Graham and Steven Curtis Chapman. Sure there were different denominations, but that had more to do with preferences in worship and the “secondary stuff” than theology, right? Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t that simple even then, but it felt like Christians were such a unified group.
What Bell seems to be proposing is that that unified group was too insular and exclusive, missing the bigger picture of what God was up to. What DeYoung points out is that the “unity” we thought we had didn’t really exist. We put aside some very significant differences (some bordering quite literally on “life and death” issues) to confront a larger secular culture, and in the process we diluted what it really meant to be a Christian to the point where it was nearly impossible to define. Today, more and more, the cracks are showing, as we begin to realize that many of the people we thought “got it” need to be re-taught some of the hard truths of Scripture (as we all do, often) or perhaps to be told the Good News in its totality for the first time in their lives.
We’re wired to dislike conflict, but if what comes of this kerfuffle is a renewed focus on the truths of Scripture and a renewed proclamation of the whole Gospel (including the hard parts) to Christians and non-Christians alike, then God will be glorified. If that’s what it takes for revival to come, I’ll take the conflict over that false sense of unity every time.
Posted by Justin Lonas